By Dave Carlin, Senior Vice President of Legislative Affairs and Economic Policy
September 25 is World School Milk Day, which is celebrated by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization each year to celebrate the health benefits of school milk programs. This column was originally published in the August issue of Dairy Foods Magazine and highlights the nutritional importance of dairy products in federal food and nutrition programs.
This fall, Congress will consider legislation to reauthorize federal child nutrition programs, including the school meals programs and the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC) which provides nutritious foods to supplement the diets of low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, as well as infants and children up to age five. It’s been nearly a decade since Congress updated these programs, and the dairy industry is urging policymakers to make four common-sense changes to ensure that the nutritional benefits of dairy products are more accessible to children and families that participate in these programs.
First, we are asking Congress to take steps to protect new USDA rules that allow low-fat (1%) flavored milk to once again be served in school cafeterias. The previous administration banned low-fat flavored milk in 2012 and as a result, school milk consumption decreased by seven percent because kids didn’t like the taste of the non-fat flavored milk that was offered in its place. As a result, a generation of milk drinkers was lost because older children and teens are less likely to drink milk if they didn’t consume it when they were younger. The current administration has restored the low-fat (1%) flavored milk option, and according to a recent survey conducted by the National Dairy Council, school milk consumption increased in nearly 60 percent of the schools that are offering low-fat flavored milk to their students. We need to make sure that future administrations don’t take us back down the same disastrous path, so we are asking Congress to enshrine the current USDA rules in statute, which will make it more difficult for future USDA leaders to undo them.
WIC families also deserve more milk options and that is why we hope Congress will make it easier for all WIC mothers to use their benefits to again purchase reduced fat (2%) milk for themselves and their children. In 2014, the WIC rules were changed to prevent most WIC mothers with children two and older from using their benefits to purchase any milk variety other than low-fat (1%) and non-fat. Like most Americans, WIC participants prefer reduced fat (2%) or whole milk which means they must go outside of WIC to buy their desired milk varieties. Moreover, a 2015 study found that many stores in Hispanic-majority and low-income neighborhoods were less likely to carry low-fat (1%) or non-fat milk, which combined with WIC’s milk restrictions, result in less milk consumption by WIC families. WIC families need milk’s nine essential nutrients and providing them with more milk options will help improve the health of mothers and children who participate in the program.
We also hope that Congress will make it easier for families to utilize WIC program benefits to purchase yogurt in in single-serving containers that may better suit their family’s consumption patterns. Some states interpret current rules restrictively to limit yogurt redemptions to one 32-ounce container of yogurt, instead of allowing WIC families to choose single serving containers that are more prevalent and contain flavors not available in larger container sizes. Providing a little more flexibility would make it much easier for WIC families to access the full nutritional benefits of yogurt. Finally, we are also asking Congress to permit low-fat (1%) and non-fat milk to be sold in 16-ounce containers in high school vending machines to encourage kids to choose a healthier beverage option instead of a diet soda or sports drinks which can be offered in 20-ounce containers. The current milk container size limit is 12 ounces.
Congress can improve the health and nutrition of millions of American families by making these four simple program changes. Let’s not miss this opportunity, which after all, doesn’t come around very often.