Will whole milk return to US schools? Congress set to vote on bill that enjoys 'strong bipartisan support'

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/Jose Luis Pelaez Inc
Getty/Jose Luis Pelaez Inc

Related tags Dairy Milk Nutrition

Congress is expected to debate and vote on a bill that could bring whole milk back on school menus, in contravention with Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The bill has bipartisan support of 134 co-sponsors in the House, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.

Milk, regardless of whether it’s low-fat or whole, provides the same 13 essential nutrients. According to the National Milk Producers’ Federation research, whole milk is the most consumed milk variety in the US, followed by 2% fat milk – but neither are currently part of federal school meal programs due to concerns regarding saturated fat and sugar content.

However, milk producers argue that excluding the most commonly-consumed milk types from school menus is a key contributing factor to food waste. According to WWF, school cafeterias in the US hand out 275 million half-pint cartons of milk to students per day – but 45 million gallons of milk are wasted each year, the equivalent of 68 Olympic-size swimming pools. The organization estimates that producing one gallon of milk requires 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide and almost 145 gallons of water, meaning that wasted school milk emits the same as 77,000 vehicles would. That impact is made worse when milk waste, such as aseptic beverage cartons, is sent to landfills or for incineration where it produces additional greenhouse gas emissions.

The dairy industry is also concerned that fewer milk cartons are being served at schools and other child care establishments. According to recently-released preliminary data​, total average participation in the National School Lunch Program for 2023 has declined to 28.5 million students, down from 30.1 million in 2022, and around 320 million fewer lunches were served in 2023. 

As part of the Special Milk Program, also known as the School Milk Program, around 9,100 schools, child care institutions and camps participated in 2023, but only 19.1 million half-pints of milk were served. In comparison, in 1999 when a similar number of outlets participated in the program, 126.9 million half-pints were served. Compared with last year’s figures, 18.8 milk cartons were served by significantly fewer child care establishments, around 1,700 according to the data​.

The bill, known as Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2023, aims to revise requirements for milk provided by the National School Lunch Program, essentially circumventing the requirement that milk served at participating schools must be consistent with Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

USDA currently requires milk to be fat-free or low-fat, flavored or unflavored; the bill would modify these restrictions and instead permits schools to offer whole, reduced-fat, low-fat, and fat-free flavored and unflavored milk.

But there’s more – the bill would also ament the amount of permissible saturated fat content of the meals offered in schools. At the moment, the average saturated fat content of the meals offered must be less than 10% of the total calories, but if the bill becomes law, fluid milk would be excluded from that calculation.

'Unwarranted political meddling' or improving access to nutrition? 

The National Milk Producers’ Federation argues that ‘a growing body of scientific evidence shows the benefits of dairy fats compared with other fats’, adding that whole milk consumption shouldn’t be limited ‘because of one-size-fits-all rules based on outdated science’.

“Allowing the whole milk and 2% options would reduce food waste and encourage the consumption of products that provide 13 essential nutrients yet are under-consumed by school-age populations,” the organization said.

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) which is also backing the amendments echoed this view: “Most American households have whole and 2% milk in the refrigerator - in fact, 75% of all retail and institutional sales of milk are whole and 2%. Whole, reduced-fat and lactose-free milk contain the same nutrients as all other fluid milk, including calcium, phosphorus, protein, vitamins A, D and B12, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, and niacin. Importantly, recent research has shown that there is no harm, and some potential benefits of full-fat dairy foods such as whole milk, including less weight gain and neutral or lower risk of heart disease. Several recent research studies (including systematic reviews and meta-analysis) examining the effect of higher fat milk consumption found that it was associated with lower childhood obesity and concluded that dietary guidelines that recommend reduced-fat milk versions might not lower the risk of childhood obesity.”

IDFA president and CEO Michael Dykes released the following statement: "After more than a decade of waiting, it’s time to lift the ban on whole and 2% milk and give children more nutritious choices in school cafeterias. The bipartisan Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2023 would allow schools to once again provide children with a wide variety of nutritious milk options to meet their individual preferences, whether that be whole or 2% milk - which three-quarters of consumers purchase from grocery stores—or low-fat or lactose-free milk. Children should once again be able to access the type of nutritious milk they prefer in federal school meals programs.

“Whole and reduced-fat milk alike provide children with 13 essential nutrients for growth, development, healthy immune function, and overall wellness. Since whole and 2% milk were banned from school meals menus more than a decade ago, meal participation has declined while food waste has climbed, meaning our children are actually consuming fewer essential nutrients. This is especially concerning considering underconsumption of milk and dairy products is prevalent among school-aged children, where between 68% and 76.2% of school age boys and between 77.4% and 94.3% of school age girls are failing to meet recommended levels of dairy intake per federal guidelines. A wide majority of parents and medical and nutrition professionals know that offering these options increases school meal participation, reduces food waste, and provides nutritionally valuable school meals for children and adolescents. In fact, up to 80% of voting adults and parents support offering whole or 2% milk as part of school meals, according to surveys conducted by Morning Consult."

But the industry’s calls to allow whole milk back on school menu is facing opposition from several organizations, including consumer advocacy body the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) which has called the bill ‘unwarranted political meddling with evidence-based nutrition standards’.

“How many parents would turn to their members of Congress for nutrition advice for their children instead of health experts?” asked Megan Maroney, CSPI campaign manager for federal child nutrition programs. “It’s absurd. Nutrition standards for school meals should be based on science, not on regurgitated talking points from the dairy industry or any other industry.”

CSPI argues that science-led organizations such as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Cardiology all recommend low-fat or fat-free milk starting at age 2 in order to limit saturated fat to less than 10% of the daily calorie intake. “Between 78 and 88 percent of school-age children’s diets already exceed the recommended limit of saturated fat,” CSPI said. “Just one cup of whole milk contains five grams of saturated fat, which is a quarter of the Daily Value of the heart-disease-promoting nutrient.”

The chamber is expected to vote on the legislation this week (w/c December 11, 2023, ed.).

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