Congress passes Whole Milk Act but sparks inequality fears

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Emely
Image: Getty/Emely

Related tags Dairy fluid milk whole milk Milk Nutrition vegan Saturated fat school nutrition Usa Obesity

The House of Representatives passed a bill that could reinstate whole and reduced fat milk on school menus – but lobby groups say the change would spark racial inequalities.

The dairy industry has welcomed the passage of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act through Congress by a vote of 330 to 99. The bill, which aims to re-introduce whole and reduced fat milk - including lactose-free options - to schools, has now progressed to Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority. In the House, the bill was backed by 218 Republicans and 112 Democrats, while 1 Republican and 98 Democratic members rejected it, with a total of 4 abstentions.

Michael Dykes, D.V.M., president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), called for ‘swift action’ to move the bill through the upper chamber. He added: “Whole and 2% milk 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 children are 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 94% of school age boys and girls are failing to meet recommended levels of dairy intake per federal guidelines. At the same time, nutrition science has evolved in the past decade to show neutral or positive benefits of full-fat dairy foods such as whole milk, including less weight gain, neutral or lower risk of heart disease, and lower childhood obesity. A wide majority of parents and medical and nutrition professionals recognize 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.”

Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) echoed the sentiment. “Whole and 2% milk are widely preferred by children and parents nationwide. And yet, students cannot access these same healthy milk options in their schools,” the co-op said in a statement. “Access to whole milk in schools allows students to benefit from affordable, unmatched and wholesome nutrition. Today’s decision is in alignment with scientific research that demonstrates the benefits of real dairy at all fat levels, and consumer preference.

Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), chimed in: “Milk’s unique nutritional profile gives it an unparalleled role in providing kids the nutrients they need. Expanding the milk schools can choose to serve to include 2% and whole is a common-sense solution that will help ensure kids have access to the same healthful milk options they drink at home. House passage is a critical step, and we urge the Senate to consider this bill immediately so it may be enacted into law.”

Reversing the decline?

In the US, fluid milk consumption has been on the decline since the mid-1970s, while more recent changes to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have meant that whole and reduced fat milk have been absent from school menus for more than a decade as regulators acted to limit the amount of saturated fat that children consume.

Currently, the USDA mandates that fat-free and low-fat milk contain all essential nutrients that kids need while staying within the calorie and saturated fat limits recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. But if the Whole Milk bill becomes law, schools will be able to offer whole fat and reduced fat flavored and unflavored options, including lactose-free milk, as part of federal programs, such as the National School Lunch Program. Processors say that the change would bolster school children’s nutritional intake, but other organizations, such as the CSPI​, argue that allowing whole milk back on the menu would make school meals less healthy.

Milk sold in schools forms an important part of the overall fluid milk market – for example, in 2019, school milk sales amounted to 10% of all fluid milk sales in 2019. And while the USDA doesn’t track school milk consumption per se, it collects data on the participation in federal programs. According to preliminary data for 2023​, the total average participation in the National School Lunch Program has declined to 28.5 million students this year, compared to 30.7 million in 2013, with almost half a billion fewer lunches having been served in 2023 compared to a decade ago.

Meanwhile, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates​ that US schools sell around 275 million half-pint milk cartons per day but around 45 million gallons of milk are wasted each year, contributing to a growing food waste problem.

For milk processors, the potential re-introduction of whole and reduced fat milk into federal-assisted meal programs would mean that more types of fluid milk could be sold to the government. At the same time, there will be hopes that milk consumption in schools would pick up again, since whole and reduced-fat milk are the two most popular milk types in America, according to YouGov​.

Another trend that milk processors would be watching is Generation Z’s lukewarm attitudes to milk consumption – according to Circana research cited by The New York Times​, Gen Z shoppers bought 20% less milk than the national average in 2022.

Inequality fears

In addition to arguments around whole and reduced-fat milk’s health credentials, the bill has led to calls to expand access to dairy alternatives as a means to offer greater choice to children that have lactose intolerance or milk allergies. The bipartisan leadership of the Black, Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander caucuses proposed an amendment, known as the ADD SOY (Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth Act) Act, S. 2943​, that would have opened doors to students to request a non-dairy alternative for other than medical or special dietary reasons. The reasoning behind this is that the rates of lactose intolerance and milk allergies among children from minority backgrounds is higher.

Currently, school food authorities have the option to offer one or more allowable fluid milk substitutes for children whose special dietary needs do not constitute a disability. If a school chooses to make allowable milk substitutes available, these must be available for all children when requested by a parent or guardian. However, the USDA does not provide additional reimbursement for these substitutions.

Congressman Troy A. Carter, Sr., who introduced the ADD SOY bill alongside congresswoman Nancy Mace, said: “Too many children who cannot safely or comfortably consume dairy are being forced to accept containers of cow’s milk on their lunch trays. My ADD SOY Act ensures the health and nutritional needs of all our nation’s students are met. America needs to embrace its diversity at the lunch counter.”

The House, however, did not debate the amendment.

Non-profit organizations Animal Wellness Action, the Center for a Humane Economy, and Switch4Good that back the passage of the ADD SOY Act criticized the House Rules Committee for not allowing House representatives to debate the amendment. “It is startling that the House, in taking up a so-called ‘milk choice’ bill, won’t allow a debate on an amendment permitting a nutritionally acceptable, plant-based milk option for kids even though half of all participants in the National School Lunch program are lactose intolerant,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action. “Countless kids get sick from consuming cow’s milk, and millions of others throw it away. Neither outcome is good for them or for our country, and the ADD SOY Act is a simple, common-sense remedy.”

Dairy groups have offered counter-arguments to this in the past, with the NMPF suggesting that lactose-free milk provides a government-funded option for kids with lactose intolerance. In an essay published at the time when the ADD SOY Act was first unveiled, the trade organization argued that the bill was "the latest ploy mong the vegan, animal rights and plant-based lobbies is to suddenly paint themselves as social justice crusaders, demanding that their nutritionally inferior - which, even when fortified, remain unequal to dairy’s unique nutritional package - products should now be treated as legitimate milk substitutes in federal nutrition programs - all the while conveniently forgetting that a widely available alternative already exists that circumvents lactose intolerance and delivers the exact same nutritional profile as milk. Because that’s what it is."

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