Joseph Scimeca
Joe Scimeca, Ph.D., is senior vice president, regulatory and scientific affairs, for the International Dairy Foods Association.

A silent crisis is gripping our nation’s children. In a typical school year, more than 30 million students of all ages rely on school breakfast and lunch for their daily recommended intake of critical nutrients. For many children, a school meal is by far the healthiest meal they will consume on any given day. For some kids, sadly, it is the only meal.

However, during the pandemic school meal participation in cities across the country plummeted. According to the School Nutrition Association’s analysis of preliminary data from USDA, which oversees the School Breakfast and National School Lunch Programs, schools served at least 675 million fewer meals in school year 2020-2021 versus school year 2019-2020. Remote learning, COVID-19-related illnesses, food supply shortages, and other challenges greatly contributed to the drop-off.

Flavored milk an important option

It is important not only that the number of meals served to students is increased, but also that nutrient-dense dairy foods continue to be a core part of school meals. Earlier this year, USDA released school meal transitional standards that would be in effect through the 2023-2024 school year. In those standards, USDA affirmed that low-fat flavored milk may be served in schools and provided more gradual sodium reductions in foods. The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) has been urging USDA to ensure that permanent nutrient standards encourage dairy consumption, through continuing the inclusion of flavored dairy options and making sure that restrictions on saturated fat and sodium don’t restrict the offering of dairy products kids prefer and will consume.

You see, when schools offer low-fat flavored milk, school meal participation increases and children consume more of their meals and discard less food, getting more of the nutrients they need. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the School Nutrition Association, and the Institute of Medicine have all published statements that support the nutritive contributions of fat-free flavored milk in school meals. They know that offering more milk options in school plays an important role in the diet and nutrition of children.

Milk contains 13 essential nutrients that children need for growth, development, healthy immune function and overall wellness. The low-fat flavored milk offered in schools today contains 50% less added sugar and 41 fewer calories than it did a decade ago — with all the same nutrition benefits our kids need.

Last year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack testified before Congress that kids miss out on the essential nutrients and vitamins in milk when low-fat flavored milk isn’t an option in schools because they simply don’t drink it. IDFA is hopeful his department will heed these words as they develop permanent meal standards related to milk.

Considerations beyond milk

Cheese also represents an important way for children to access and enjoy the nutrition in dairy. Often, cheese is a critical meat alternate in school meals, particularly for vegetarian meals. Cheesemakers have significantly reduced sodium in recent years, but there are concerns if additional sodium reductions continue, particularly for the impact on cheese functionality, palatability, and shelf life.

Yogurt is another important meat alternate in school meals, and consumption of yogurt has been associated with higher diet quality in children, with higher intake of several nutrients, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamin D. Flavored yogurt is a particularly important option within the School Breakfast Program.

We’re at a critical juncture for child nutrition. As children fully return to schools this fall, it is vital that we improve meal participation rates that declined precipitously over the past two years, and — consistent with Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations — we need to ensure students have access to healthy dairy options in school meals.

Joe Scimeca, Ph.D., is senior vice president, regulatory and scientific affairs, for the International Dairy Foods Association.