The widespread support and opposition suggests a battle is brewing over the types of milk allowed in schools, and that more controversy is on the horizon regarding what has become a fraught issue.
The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, sponsored by Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., would make changes to the National School Lunch Act and allow schools in the national school lunch program to serve whole milk, bypassing dietary guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture which have required only fat-free and 1% milk for more than a decade.
The bill, H.R. 1147, has garnered broad bipartisan support, with 134 legislators signing on as co-sponsors, and was approved by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce June 30.
But from the perspective of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the “misguided and harmful bill … prioritizes corporate interests at the expense of child health.”
Over the limit
Meghan Maroney, CSPI campaign manager, federal child nutrition programs, explained in a release that school meals are required to meet the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend limiting saturated fat.
“Even with the current science-based guidelines in place, most children exceed the recommended limits on saturated fat over the course of their day, which is troublesome given that consuming too much saturated fat is linked to raised LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, a known cause of heart disease,” she said.
However, an amendment to the bill would negate the recommended fat limits from the dietary guidelines, stating that milk fat would not be considered saturated fat when measuring a meal’s saturated compliance for compliance with regulations.
Maroney suggested the bill could negatively impact children’s cholesterol, noting that 20% of school-age children already report adverse cholesterol levels.
“In effect, the bill overrides Congress’s previous directives simply because the dairy industry wants it,” she said.
CSPI has pushed for transparency on the nutrition content of milks served at schools in the U.S.
The dairy industry is firmly in support of the bill, and many of the legislative supporters represent dairy-producing states.
The National Milk Producers Federation says that it’s also working to build support for the Senate version of the measure, S. 1957, which has been referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
In a column posted on its website, NMPR Senior Director of Government Relations Claudia Larson says that the bill could help improve child nutrition, framing it as a “commonsense” solution to child nutrition problems.
“No other food delivers the same rich and unique nutrition package as milk, which provides 13 essential nutrients, including three of the four public health concerns,” she says. “Milk plays an especially significant role in providing the nutrition critical for childhood health and development.”
Larson suggests that a possible House floor vote on the bill could come soon.
“There is no reason to bar inclusion of popular milk options like whole and reduced-fat milks in school lunches when we know they have the same nutritional benefits as other types of milk,” legislators say in a report on the bill. “H.R. 1147 expands milk access and variety in school lunches, giving parents and school food service providers the simplicity and flexibility they need to feed students a nutritious beverage.”
But not all members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce are in favor of the act.
In the report, most of the Democrats on the committee record their disapproval and urge the full House to oppose the measure.
“Nutrition standards for school meal programs are best left to evidence-based recommendations from nutrition and public health experts,” they say. “Instead of taking a comprehensive approach at improving federal child nutrition programs, H.R. 1147 dismisses the nutrition science that we depend on to improve the health of school-aged children across the country.”
Sugar, non-dairy alternatives hot button milk issues as well
The bill would also take on a proposed rule from the USDA that could limit flavored milk options in schools.
The department is considering measures to reduce the amount of sugar in school meals, a bar it could meet by restricting flavored milks and lowering the amount of sugar permitted in flavored milks served at schools.
A group of Senators wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in June in opposition to the proposal, arguing that constraints on flavored milks would impact students’ consumption of dairy products.
Concern over dairy product consumption and potential consumer confusion drove development of the recently introduced DAIRY PRIDE Act. The bill would require FDA to prohibit plant-based milk alternative products from using the term “milk,” reserving it for only products derived from lactating animals.
At the same time, the plant-based food industry is advocating for the federal government to encourage plant-based milk options in school lunches.
Petition pushes for whole milk
Meanwhile, a petition from the Grassroots Citizens for Whole Milk for Healthy Kids initiated in 2019 calls for ending the current prohibition on whole milk in schools.
It has garnered nearly 25,000 signatures and urges citizens to write their federal representatives in support of legislative measures to allow schools to choose to serve whole milk.
The petition cites USDA reports indicating fat-free and low-fat school milk are among the most frequently discarded items at schools, and points to a Pennsylvania trial that found a 95% reduction in discarded milk when students were offered all fat levels of milk.
Grassroots Citizens for Whole Milk for Healthy Kids also highlights what it sees as the health benefits of whole milk, noting that it does not contain any added sweeteners, and that “flavored milk has less sugar when the milk is whole.”
“The fat delays absorption of the natural sugar, so blood sugar rises more slowly over a longer period, and it's easier for individuals with digestive sensitivity to digest,” the group says.