Congress is expected to take up legislation this fall 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 5. It’s been over a decade since Congress updated these programs, and the dairy industry is urging policymakers to make five common-sense changes to ensure the nutritional benefits of dairy are more accessible to children and families participating in these programs.
Keep low-fat flavored milk an option
As schools reopen to in-person learning in the fall, Congress should ensure that good-tasting and nutritious dairy products remain on the menu. Schools should continue to have the option of serving low-fat (1%) flavored milk to their students.
A federal court decision last year revived the 2012 USDA rules that permit schools to serve only nonfat flavored milk — a product that is less palatable to kids. That means they won’t drink milk as often in the cafeteria and, as a result, won’t receive the positive health and nutrition benefits of increased dairy consumption as recommended by the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Evidence shows access to flavored milk also enhances school meal participation and reduces plate waste among students — a boon for kids and schools alike.
Consider sodium’s unique role in cheesemaking
Another way for kids to get the benefits of dairy is through cheese. Mac and cheese continues to be one of the most popular meals in school cafeterias, and we shouldn’t knock it off the menu because of new sodium limits that don’t take into account the unique role sodium plays in the cheesemaking process, both from a taste and food safety perspective. Cheesemakers have already reduced sodium in many of their school offerings, and Congress should ensure that any more restrictive sodium limits are technologically attainable before they are imposed by USDA.
Give WIC families more milk options
WIC families also deserve more milk options, and that is why we are urging Congress to make it easier for all WIC mothers to use their benefits to again purchase reduced-fat (2%) milk for themselves and their children. Reduced-fat milk was largely removed from the WIC program in 2014, which means most WIC mothers with children age 2 and older can’t use their benefits to purchase any milk variety other than low-fat (1%) and nonfat.
Like most other Americans, most WIC participants prefer reduced-fat (2%) or whole milk, which means they can’t use their WIC benefits to buy the milk they want. WIC families need milk’s high-quality protein and 13 essential nutrients. Providing them with more milk options would help improve the health of mothers and children who participate in the program.
Expand yogurt options, too
We also hope Congress will make it easier for families to use their WIC benefits to purchase yogurt in single-serving containers. Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia currently limit yogurt redemptions to one 32-ounce container. Single-serving yogurts have more flavors and are more widely available than the larger container size. Providing a little more flexibility would make it much easier for WIC families to access the full nutritional benefits of yogurt.
Allow larger containers for milk in school vending machines
Finally, we are asking Congress to permit low-fat (1%) and nonfat milk to be sold in 16-ounce containers in high school vending machines to encourage kids to choose milk instead of a diet soda or low-calorie sports drinks, which can be offered in 20-ounce containers. The current milk container size limit is 12 ounces, which makes it a less attractive option for a thirsty high school student.
Congress could improve the health and nutrition of millions of American families by making these simple changes as part of the upcoming child nutrition reauthorization process. School kids and WIC families are counting on us to get this right.