Representatives Joe Courtney, D-Ct., and Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, R-Pa., led a bipartisan group of 55 members in writing to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to provide support for increasing dairy consumption for children by providing schools the freedom to offer low-fat, flavored milk as part of school meals programs.
Reps. Courtney and Thompson have teamed up before on this issue through the introduction of the School Milk Nutrition Act of 2019.
The Representatives note in their letter that the underconsumption of milk and other dairy foods carries serious health risks, and thanked Vilsack for calling attention to the importance of milk consumption during his recent commentary before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. Importantly, the representatives note that an evidence-based path forward for increasing dairy consumption in schools already exists within USDA’s jurisdiction:
“One of the best ways to encourage healthy eating is within the federal school meal programs under your jurisdiction,” Courtney and Thompson wrote. “Evidence clearly shows that when students choose school meals, they receive a better and more balanced diet. They are also more likely to choose milk: the recent School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study shows that students who participate in the National School Lunch Program are almost three times as likely to have milk with their lunch as their peers who do not participate.”
The letter cites the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report, which found that 79% of 9–13-year-olds, who rely on the school meal programs to meet their nutritional needs, are not meeting the recommended intake of dairy foods. “Both the 2015 and 2020 editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) amplified this concern, stating that, beginning at a young age, average dairy consumption falls short of recommended amounts,” the letter states.
While current USDA flexibilities allow schools to offer low-fat flavored milk through the 2021-2022 school year, USDA has before it a proposed rule that would make these flexibilities permanent. Importantly, this action would remain consistent with the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“As you know, current law requires school milk varieties to be consistent with the DGAs and specifically permits flavored milk,” they continue. “Accordingly, we believe schools should continue to have the option to offer low-fat flavored milk, which remains consistent with the most recent DGAs."
Students turn away from fat-free milk
They write that surveys have shown that students drank less milk when all flavored milk was required to be fat-free. One survey conducted by the Milk Processor Education Program, which is overseen by USDA, determined that from 2012 (when low-fat flavored milk was removed as an option in schools) to 2018, school milk volume declined from 452 million gallons to 403 million gallons in – a decrease of 10.8%. In turn, when schools were again able to offer this variety, respondents to a survey said students liked the milk better and consumption rose.
A survey of more than 300 schools offering low-fat flavored milk under waiver authority in the 2017-18 school year found that 58% of schools saw an increase in milk sold and 82% reported that it was easy or very easy to accommodate low-fat flavored milk within the calorie maximum for their menus.
“As we work together to confront the many food and nutrition challenges facing our population, we would like to work with you to explore the best path forward to ensure schools can choose which varieties of milk to serve from all options consistent with the DGAs,” the legislators write.
“Milk benefits children in many ways – but it can’t benefit them at all if they don’t drink it and ensuring that they do so requires a wide range of options,” says Jim Mulhern, President and CEO, National Milk Producers Federation. “Milk’s unique nutritional package is of great benefit to the nation’s schoolchildren, and this message to Secretary Vilsack strongly supports the critical goal of boosting consumption of essential nutrients of public health concern, including calcium, potassium, and vitamin D.”
“Milk, including low-fat flavored milk, is an important way for children to access the nutrient profile of dairy, providing thirteen essential nutrients and unique health benefits,” says Michael Dykes, D.V.M., president and CEO, International Dairy Foods Association. “IDFA appreciates the leadership of the more than 50 champions for dairy in the House of Representatives for encouraging USDA to prioritize dairy in federal nutrition programs, specifically through the inclusion of low-fat flavored milk in school meal programs.”
“Right now, USDA has before it a proposed rule that would return to flexibilities allowing flavored, low-fat milk to be served in child nutrition programs, and IDFA strongly encourages the USDA to adopt school milk flexibility in the rule as a long-term solution,” Dykes adds. “By doing so, the USDA would help ensure more kids meet the recommended intake for dairy set forth in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”