J. David Carlin
J. David Carlin is senior vice president of legislative affairs and economic policy for IDFA.

This month, the White House will convene a special conference on hunger, nutrition, and health. In advance of this once-in-a-generation meeting, our organization joined a number of national agricultural, anti-hunger, nutrition and medical groups to urge the White House to place a high priority on improving access to affordable, diverse and nutritious foods for everyone, including urban, suburban, rural and tribal communities. Our goal is not only to end hunger and malnutrition, but to also improve health outcomes and reduce chronic disease by making it easier for consumers to eat healthy and affordable food.  

Dairy should play an important role in this effort. Among consumers, dairy products are valued for their relative affordability, nutrient density, nourishing qualities, diverse and flexible product offerings, and wide availability across cultures, regions, and income levels. In fact, no other type of food or beverage provides the unique combination of nutrients that dairy contributes to the American diet. 

However, a staggering 90% of Americans don’t consume enough milk and other nutritious dairy products, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). This figure is particularly acute among our nation's most nutritionally insecure populations, where access to healthy, nutritious foods can come at a premium.

Improving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would be a great starting point. SNAP is our nation’s largest anti-poverty program. It provides food-purchasing assistance to qualifying individuals and families. Unlike other federal nutrition programs, SNAP participants can use their benefits to purchase most grocery store food products. 

One way to encourage healthier choices would be to incentivize them by providing SNAP families with dollar-for-dollar coupons or rebates for healthy food purchases, including nutrient-rich dairy products. Congress created a pilot program (the Healthy Fluid Milk Incentives Projects) in the 2018 Farm Bill to test methodologies to encourage more fluid milk purchases in SNAP. The time has come to expand that program to more retailers nationwide and to include yogurt and cheese products in addition to fluid milk.   

Another important anti-poverty program is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). In 2020, 6.3 million Americans participated in the WIC program, according to USDA data, even though many more women and children qualify for the program. Despite best efforts, WIC remains rife with barriers to access, including a limited menu that does not always reflect DGA recommendations nor the latest nutritional research. 

At present, WIC participants are not fully redeeming their WIC milk benefits and are consuming fewer essential nutrients as a result. Policymakers could chip away at that gap by reinstating reduced-fat (2%) milk (the most widely available variety) for all WIC participants, as well as standardizing other varieties of milk such as ultrafiltered, omega-3, and organic, to simplify and fulfill their allotted redemptions. Further, policymakers need to make WIC’s package size requirements more flexible. For example, WIC participants should be able to buy yogurt in single-serving sizes instead of large, 32-ounce containers which are not widely available, particularly in small neighborhood stores. Yogurt is healthy. Why are we making it difficult to purchase in federal nutrition programs? 

Another area of focus should be on improving the quality of food in our nation’s School Meals Program. For many students, a school lunch or breakfast is the healthiest meal they will consume daily, and dairy is a key reason why. USDA should expand the varieties of milk that schools are allowed to serve, including flavored milk that is more palatable to kids. 

Another way for kids to get the benefits of dairy is through cheese. Macaroni & cheese continues to be one of the most popular meals in school cafeterias. We shouldn’t knock it off the menu because of sodium limits that don’t consider the unique role that sodium plays in the cheesemaking process, both from a taste and food safety perspective. 

Nutrition and health outcomes for all Americans can be improved, and dairy products should be a key component in achieving this important policy goal.