The school cafeteria is no stranger to food fights, and the most recent battle over the lunchroom menu revolves around whole milk. In this op-ed, Lindsay Gaesser defends a childhood staple and recommends that kids rather than politicians choose the milk.
The school cafeteria is no stranger to food fights. While they typically arise over frivolous issues that will soon be forgotten by the time the bell rings, there is one issue that has troubled the lunchroom for decades: What’s for lunch? The usual subjects include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, sodium, added sugars, and milk—each targeted by programs and policies aimed at fighting hunger and obesity in U.S. schoolchildren. However, the most recent battle over the lunchroom menu revolves around milk. Specifically, whether schools should be allowed to serve whole milk.
If you are unfamiliar with the history of milk in schools, here is a quick rundown. In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which authorized funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs and increased access to healthy food for low-income children. The Act amended nutrition standards in the School Lunch Program and included a mandate that flavored milk offered within the program must be fat free. Paired with lower participation in the program, this regulation led to a decline in milk consumption in schools—students consumed 288 million fewer half-pints of milk from 2012-2015.
In an effort to increase flexibility and to increase milk consumption, U.S. Representatives Glenn Thompson (R-PA) and Joe Courtney (D-CT) introduced H.R. 4101, the School Milk Nutrition Act of 2017. In support of this initiative, the USDA issued an interim final rule in 2017 allowing schools to offer flavored, low-fat milk to children participating in school meal programs. In December 2018, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue finalized that rule. Building on these efforts, Rep. Thompson and Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Collin Peterson (D-MN) introduced The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act (H.R. 832) in January of this year, which would allow schools to serve students unflavored and flavored varieties of whole milk if passed.
Why is this such a big deal? As kids, we always drank milk because “It Does A Body Good” and it helps to build strong bones. We also played outside and weren’t tethered to various technological devices—but that’s another issue entirely. The point is, milk isn’t the bad guy. And now there’s science to prove it.
Recent evidence suggests that consumption of milk and dairy products is associated with reduced risk of childhood obesity. Several studies show a significant inverse association between milk intake and outcome measures including BMI, percent body fat, and overweight or obesity. One study in particular found significantly lower BMI in school-age children who drank full-fat milk regularly compared with those who seldom or never drank full-fat milk. Overall, a preponderance of evidence indicates that milk consumption contributes to meeting nutrient recommendations and may protect against the most prevalent chronic diseases, whereas few adverse effects have been reported.
Some may argue that offering whole milk will lead to increased sugar and calorie consumption in schools. But all milk, regardless of fat content, contains 12 grams of lactose per serving. Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar, not to be confused with sugars that are added to packaged foods and beverages during processing. So, while most flavored milk options contain 24 grams of sugar, only half of that is from added sugars. And although whole milk does contain more calories than non-fat and low-fat milk, regulations for the average total calories per meal remain intact. Thus, if the addition of whole milk causes average meal calorie counts to exceed regulatory limits, schools can modify other menu items accordingly in order to compensate. When it comes to school nutritional status, the addition of whole milk to school menus may promote further progress. Because whole milk contains more calories and fat, it is more filling. As such, it would prevent children from compensating elsewhere in their diet with increased consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor junk foods. This is consistent with evidence suggesting that children who habitually drink whole milk gain less weight over time than children who habitually drink low-fat milk.
Opponents will see the bill as a rollback of school nutrition standards and a contradiction of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends a diet that includes low-fat milk. But the body of data is beginning to reveal that full-fat dairy has a place in a healthy diet. As such, some nutritionists and public health experts are calling for a change in the policy of recommending only low-fat dairy products because “there is no prospective human evidence that people who eat low-fat dairy do better than people who eat full-fat dairy,” Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University told Time Magazine. So perhaps it’s time to rethink the Dietary Guidelines as well.
Simply put, milk is a nutritional powerhouse. It contains nine essential nutrients, including two that school-age children tend to under-consume: calcium and vitamin D. Peak bone development occurs between the ages of nine and 14. Because calcium and vitamin D help build and maintain healthy bones, their intake is crucial during this period. Whole milk, specifically, delivers eight grams of fat and 150 calories per serving. It also provides superior absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and D, and vitamin D aids in calcium absorption. If vitamin D intake is low in children due to a lack of milk consumption in schools, then children also may not be receiving adequate calcium for healthy bone development. So, unless children are consuming adequate fat from other sources in their diet, these nutrients are not being absorbed through consumption of non-fat milk alone.
For me, those little milk cartons on lunch trays evoke a sense of nostalgia—they were a part of growing up and also remind me of simpler times when kids rather than politicians chose the milk. Whole milk may not be a superfood, but it does provide valuable nutrients that are important for growing kids. Further, it is the overall quality and quantity of our diet that matters to health—not just one villainous nutrient du jour. The bottom line is this: there’s no need to intentionally target milk as the culprit. And it would be a shame to let school meal politics outweigh the nutritional needs and preferences of the majority of schoolchildren.
If kids prefer unflavored and flavored varieties of low- and full-fat milk to non-fat milk, let them drink it. The evidence is in, and milk does indeed do a body good.
Lindsay Gaesser is a first-year AFE student at the Friedman School and has a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law. She currently interns with the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law and serves as the communications deputy chair for the Future of Food and Nutrition Conference. On April 15, she will run the 2019 Boston Marathon.