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Why the USDA Wants to Put Whole Milk Back in School Lunches

The fight between public-health concerns and the food industry's needs will play out on school lunch menus—again.
Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue holds up his chocolate milk drink at Discovery Elementary School, in Arlington, Virginia, on October 18th, 2018.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue holds up his chocolate milk drink at Discovery Elementary School, in Arlington, Virginia, on October 18th, 2018.

Every weekday at lunchtime, some 30 million kids fill their trays in school cafeterias across the United States. First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the menu. Under the Obama administration, the agency used the program to institute stricter nutritional standards for kids, but recent policies have benefited the food industry—including a new bipartisan bill that would bring whole milk back to schools.

On Tuesday, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) and Representative Glenn Thompson (R-Pennsylvania) introduced the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2019. It would expand upon Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue's rule change allowing flavored 1 percent milk in schools, which is part of the Trump administration's directive to roll back Obama-era regulations, but also a bit of a personal agenda: As the New York Times reports, the secretary has repeatedly proclaimed his love of flavored milk.

"I wouldn't be as big as I am today without chocolate milk," he told reporters in 2017, after announcing a rule change that would loosen 2010 nutrition standards aimed at ending childhood obesity.

Already, the USDA has moved to ease restrictions on whole grains, sodium, and chocolate milk, with rules finalized in December. Whole milk, the bill's supporters say, is a natural next step—and a source of "nine essential nutrients," Thompson said in a statement Wednesday. "Milk consumption has been declining in schools throughout the nation," according to Thompson, "because kids are not consuming the varieties of milk made available to them."

These changes benefit more than vitamin-deficient kids. In a sweeping report outlining the ways in which Perdue's USDA had "sidelined science," the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, criticized the rollback of school meal rules for putting children at risk. "Rather than helping children or struggling schools, the rule appears to be a gift to the processed food industry," the scientists wrote. Already, trade groups and producers have applauded the new bill, saying it could revive the School Lunch Program.

In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act amended the program's standards as part of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign against childhood obesity. At the time, it was the first major policy change to the program in 30 years. "It's an achievement sought for decades, enacting the most meaningful and comprehensive change to food in schools we've seen in a generation," the former first lady wrote.

But the bill had its critics—on both the right and the left: The libertarian think-tank Competitive Enterprise Institute claimed program participation decreased after the change, and Harvard School of Public Health researchers found the standards had increased fruit and vegetable food waste by as much as 23 percent.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has swiftly undone this legacy. Motives aside, it's clear the new bill will help dairy farmers. But will it do the same for children? Studies found that the 2010 changes, if fully implemented, might have significantly reduced childhood obesity. A whole milk menu would also contradict the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which the USDA calls the "cornerstone of federal nutrition policy." The most recent guidelines recommend a diet that includes whole grains, low-fat milk, and limited sodium. (Perdue has defended his position, noting, "I've got 14 grandchildren.")

The two sides of the USDA's mandate—to protect both public health and the industries that feed us—have come into conflict before. And as Pacific Standard has reported, the drama often plays out on school lunch menus. Once justified as an ethical imperative and a means to fight the communists, the National School Lunch Act later created a large market for national fast food and soda brands, according to Susan Levine's School Lunch Politics.

You could argue that imperative exists today. But instead of safeguarding children, lawmakers are looking out for struggling dairy farmers, who are facing a number of challenges: Under looser import rules, Canadian producers have taken a bigger cut; government subsidies have propped up production despite falling prices; and, as a whole, the nation is drinking less milk. As a result, bankruptcies and even suicide rates are on the rise among Midwestern farmers. The U.S. cheese surplus reached a record 1.4 billion pounds this month, much of it sitting in government warehouses.

For this, Perdue—and the dairy industry—blames the Obama administration's school lunch policy. The new bill's sponsors say the new standards "led to an alarming decline in milk consumption in schools since 2010." But the real reason is more complex. According to the National Dairy Promotion and Research Program's 2006 report to Congress, this decline began well before the 2010 regulations. Children drink the most milk—and, due to demographic changes, there are now fewer children. More people are also eating and drinking away from the home, or turning to dairy substitutes. Even under the new bill, Perdue's likely to be sipping his chocolate whole milk alone.