Milk producers and the dairy industry scored a major policy victory when they secured a provision in a Senate child nutrition bill designed to stem declining dairy consumption among schoolchildren by promoting flavored milk sales in school cafeterias.
This bipartisan draft bill to reauthorize school lunches and other child nutrition programs would mandate a Department of Agriculture study of “milk consumption data and trends for children” when determining what varieties of milk should be available in school meals. The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee approved the draft bill on Jan. 20 .
At issue are federal dietary guidelines issued in 2010 and revised in January that call for schoolchildren to consume two to three servings of dairy daily to get critical nutrients including calcium, Vitamin D and potassium.
Those same dietary guidelines also discourage consumption of added sugars in foods because they contribute to a national obesity epidemic. Chocolate milk and other flavored varieties, like root beer, add about six grams (more than a teaspoon) of sugar per eight-ounce serving to the 12 grams naturally contained in white milk. The USDA currently allows only fat-free flavored milks to be served in schools, but some school districts that have cut out sugary drinks like sodas and sport drinks also limit sales of chocolate milk and other flavored varieties to reduce sugar intake. Connecticut’s Legislature passed legislation in 2014 to end all school sales of flavored milk, though Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) vetoed the bill.
The dairy industry and its supporters say the problem with cutting out flavored milk sales or limiting them to fat-free varieties is that schoolchildren just stop drinking milk. Many dietary experts argue that the nutritional benefit of drinking chocolate milk or other flavored varieties more than offsets the added sugar.
“If adding that option gets kids to drink more milk, we ought to do it,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a hearing last June.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Senate bill and ranking member of the Agriculture Committee, said school meals are “an important way to teach children healthy eating habits.”
“That’s why this bipartisan bill looked at everything from how do we encourage children to eat more fruit and vegetables, to evaluating ways to get children to drink the recommend amounts of milk,” Stabenow told Bloomberg BNA in a statement. “While the dietary guidelines clearly indicate the importance of dairy to building strong bodies, we know that many children aren’t consuming the recommended amounts. That’s why this bill asks the secretary of Agriculture to find new ways to encourage children to drink more milk.”
The legislation would put the USDA research on a fast track. The Senate bill would mandate that the research start within 60 days of enactment and would give the USDA 60 days after the research is completed to begin implementing rules to address the findings.
For the dairy industry, where overall per-capita milk consumption has slid 19 percent since 2000, that language was an important legislative victory.
The dairy industry spent $6.7 million on Washington lobbying efforts in 2015, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Meanwhile, individuals and political committees associated with the industry and its trade groups—including the International Dairy Food Association and the National Milk Producers Federation—have contributed more than $1.5 million to federal candidates in the 2016 election cycle, the center reports. The Senate bill’s co-authors, Stabenow and Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), rank among the top seven Senate recipients of dairy industry contributions in the current election cycle, according to the center’s analysis.
Declining Milk Sales
There is broad agreement on one point: Schoolchildren drink less milk when chocolate and other flavored varieties are not available.
Cornell University researchers who studied the impact of an Oregon school district’s decision to replace chocolate milk for kindergartners through fifth graders with plain skim milk found that total milk sales fell almost 10 percent and that students wasted about 40 percent of the milk they purchased. The throwaway rate was about 29 percent higher than in elementary schools that offered chocolate milk and fewer children bought school lunch at all, the researchers found.
Research by the National Dairy Council estimated that schools served about 189 million fewer half-pints of milk in 2014 than they had two years earlier, even though total public school enrollment was growing. An industry-backed study in 2013 found that school milk consumption fell 37.4 percent on days when flavored milk was not offered.
Ruth Saunders, the International Dairy Foods Association vice president for policy and legislative affairs, said many schoolchildren go without milk at home. An extra 10 calories in a carton of chocolate milk is a worthwhile trade-off, if it entices children to choose milk at lunch and get close to their daily recommended requirement, Saunders said.
The trade association advocates dropping a USDA rule under the National School Lunch Program that requires flavored milk options to be fat-free. Saunders said nonfat milk requires extra sugar to improve palatability, and that allowing a low-fat alternative would require less added sugar.
“Nutrition is important and so is the variety,” Saunders said. “It’s important to give school districts the flexibility to offer as many types of milk as they want.”
Michele Simon, a public health lawyer and author of the EatDrinkPolitics blog, challenges the objective of getting schoolchildren to drink more milk. She argues that Americans may need the nutrients, but not the milk.
“There is plenty of evidence to show that milk is intended for baby cows, not baby humans,” Simon said. “They don’t need milk, they just need a source of nutrients.”
Simon called the debate over flavored milks a “manufactured crisis” and said the provision in the Senate bill reflects the dairy industry’s clout.
“The Dairy industry has a lot of political power,” she said. “If you think about it, milk is the only food required by the USDA in schools. The rest of the school meal requirements are based on nutrition science to tell us that kids and adults need certain nutrients.”
But Chris Galen, a spokesperson for the National Milk Producers Federation, said it is tough to get those nutrients with a dairy-free diet.
“Without milk, it is extremely difficult and expensive for kids to get the proper amounts of calcium, potassium, Vitamin D and other nutrients that dairy foods supply,” Galen said. “Milk supplies three out of four of the nutrients typically short in American diets.”
Galen said the added sugar in nonfat chocolate milk is miniscule compared with other sugars in children’s diets.
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