Breaking the Dairy Industry Monopoly in the Public Schools

ADD SOY Act Introduced in House to End Milk Mandate in Public Schools and Give Kids a Healthy Beverage Choice

When it comes to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), we don’t let one commodity group monopolize the plate. School lunch servers, day after day, don’t just give kids beef. Or potatoes. Or tofu. The plate has a variety of foods, collectively delivering protein, calories, and a variety of essential vitamins and minerals that provide what’s needed for a growing body.

But when it comes to the beverage option, there isn’t one aside from water — it’s cows’ milk for breakfast and lunch, day after day. Milk delivers protein and it’s fortified with vitamins, but there’s one big hitch: a high percentage, perhaps even a majority, of the 30 million kids getting nutrition assistance in our public schools suffer from lactose intolerance.

Call it the government’s Milk Mandate. In fact, the government denies school districts reimbursement for the costs of entire breakfast and lunch offerings unless each school provides cows’ milk for every student receiving nutrition assistance.

Earlier this month, Animal Wellness Action, Switch4Good, the Center for a Humane Economy, and the Animal Wellness Foundation applauded Reps. Troy Carter, D-La., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C., for introducing legislation to provide a simple, common-sense fix: give kids a soymilk option.

Their bill, H.R. 1619, the Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth (ADD SOY) Act, requires public schools to offer soy milk to kids participating in the National School Lunch Program and directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to reimburse schools for the cost of the soy milk provided.

Digestive Distress for Kids and Heartburn for Taxpayers

Each year, USDA spends $1 billion to reimburse school districts for buying cow’s milk for the NSLP. Of the 30 million kids getting milk, nearly 10 million kids throw the milk away unopened, according to one USDA study. Add in the kids who sip and then toss it, and you can understand how one separate study noted that school kids are dumping 45 million gallons of milk each year down the drain.

“It is abundantly clear that the current milk substitute system that the USDA employs is delivering detrimental impacts on BIPOC school children,” said Rep. Carter, in seeking to end a milk mandate that came into place soon after World War II ended. 

“Too many children who cannot safely or comfortably consume dairy are being forced to accept containers of cows’ milk on their lunch trays. My ADD SOY Act ensures the health and nutritional needs of all our nation’s students are met. America needs to embrace its diversity at the lunch counter.” (You can watch a brief floor speech from Rep. Carter about the ADD SOY Act here.)

Lactose intolerance (LI) is a condition that prevents the bodies from fully digesting the sugar (lactose) found in milk and other dairy products. This inability results in undigested lactose sitting in the lower intestinal tract where it can cause diarrhea, nausea, cramps, bloating and in severe cases, vomiting.

Most kids don’t have the benefit of a diagnosis that they are lactose intolerant. Some drink it and just grin and bear it. Others just know it doesn’t sit well with them and they throw it out.

The incidence of LI is dominant among people of non-European descent, with up to 80 percent of African Americans and Native Americans, 65 percent of Latinos, and more than 90 percent of Asian Americans suffering ill effects. The National Institutes of Health reports the majority of all people have a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy, and LI “is also very common in people of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek and Italian descent.” Even 15 percent of people of European descent are lactose intolerant.

“The federal government is wasting $300 million of our tax dollars a year by mandating that every school kid getting nutrition assistance has a carton of cow’s milk on the tray even though millions of them don’t want it and get sick from it,” said Rep. Mace. “Thirty percent of kids throw the milk away, and hundreds of millions of tax dollars wasted is not simply spilled milk. Kids should have a healthy choice in lunchrooms.”

An Antiquated Milk Mandate Must Give Way to 21st-Century Science

Recently, the USDA has proposed changes to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) to put more healthy offerings of fruits and vegetables onto the tables of struggling families and allow for more soy-based yogurt and other non-dairy options. That’s progress, given that the core purpose of our nutrition assistance programs is to give food-insecure Americans nourishing and digestible staples.

Soy milk is better for the environment than cows’ milk. One gallon of cows’ milk requires 1,000 gallons of water to produce, compared to 28 gallons of water for one gallon of soy milk. Producing soy milk uses less land (8 percent), produces fewer emissions (31 percent), and requires less energy (23 percent) compared to cow’s milk. A dairy cow produces 120 pounds of waste per day, with 9.42 million cows collectively generating 412 billion pounds of waste annually.

Soybeans are one of the most important agriculture crops in the U.S., with more than 500,000 farmers producing this source of high protein. Distribution in public schools to millions of kids will enhance the domestic market for one of their derivative food products.

Dairy cows have been engineered to produce milk at levels and rates that pose risks to their health and well-being. Decades ago, a dairy cow produced 433.9 gallons of milk per year. But with selective breeding for hyperproduction, a Holstein on an industrialized farm now produces 2,695 gallons annually to keep up with the demand that our government and the industry have manufactured. That means that one cow once producing 3,621 pounds of milk a year — a remarkable biological output by any measure — is now producing an astounding 22,500 pounds. That unbelievable level of production taxes her system and leads to an array of health problems — from inflammation of the udders to foot and leg problems resulting from the massive body mass she must carry. They are often spent after just four years of production.

The school lunch program has been distorted by political favoritism and it’s time to bring back some balance. The milk mandate no longer makes sense, either as a matter of child nutrition, classroom learning, or proper attention to careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars. The government is overreaching by subsidizing and promoting milk beyond its natural appeal to consumers.

In the private sector, plant-based milks account for 16 percent of sales of fluid milk. But that percentage in our schools hovers just north of zero percent. Reps. Carter and Mace have an easy, elegant fix: Follow the government science that tells us soymilk is a nutritionally equivalent product and give kids a choice that makes sense for them.

Wayne Pacelle is president of the Center for a Humane Economy and Scott Edwards is general counsel.