The USDA recently announced that schools will be able to serve low-fat flavored milk during the upcoming school year — a relief for the dairy industry and a step in the right direction for children’s nutritional needs and preference for flavored milk. But USDA’s waiver is only a temporary one, and long-term certainty on the matter with a permanent regulatory update is urgently needed to ensure America’s students receive the recommended amounts of dairy with the abundance of nutrients that it provides.
Fortunately, clarity is expected soon. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is currently working through the rulemaking process to hopefully make this temporary flexibility permanent, and FNS “intends to issue a final rule in spring 2021,” according to language in the Federal Register.
Finalizing this rule, which the International Dairy Foods Association strongly supports, will help increase milk consumption among school-age children through school meals and is consistent with the last two cycles of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
The argument against allowing low-fat flavored milk as an option in school meal programs has been ongoing for years. But the nutrition facts and scientific research on the benefits this product brings to children’s health bear witness to the importance of having low-fat flavored milk as part of school meals.
Most children and adults should consume three servings of dairy per day, according to the 2020-2025 DGA, but actual consumption lags below the recommendation, even before the impact of flavored milk restrictions for school children are taken into account. A staggering 79% of middle school-aged children do not receive enough dairy, according to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). And with data showing lower dairy consumption in communities of color, these dairy deficiencies can exacerbate long-term health disparities.
Each glass of low-fat flavored milk comes packed with 11 essential nutrients, including calcium, vitamin D and protein, which provide children with the health benefits needed as they grow. Yin Woon Rani, CEO of the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP), has noted that if flavored milk was introduced as a new product today, it would be hailed as an innovative superfood. In fact, the same essential nutrients present in white milk, including calcium and vitamin D, are present in flavored milk, and neither flavored nor unflavored milk is associated with an increased body mass index in children.
Flavored milk does have one big advantage over unflavored milk, however: Many children prefer it. When flavored milk is included in school meals, children drink more of it and derive more nutritional benefit from consuming those larger portions.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tends to agree. During a recent meeting with lawmakers, he said that rules against low-fat flavored milk simply lead children to avoid milk altogether.
“Does it make sense to have a standard that essentially cuts off milk consumption, or is it better to have a standard that encourages milk consumption,” Vilsack recently asked rhetorically. “At the end of the day, we want kids drinking milk because it’s good for them.”
There is an abundance of research that links flavored milk restrictions in schools with an overall drop in milk consumption.
One study published in Nutrition Today found that fewer elementary school children select milk in the cafeteria, and those who do throw it away at increased rates, when schools exclusively offer unflavored milk. In fact, it resulted in a 37% decrease in milk consumption. Filling the resulting nutrient gap can cost schools up to $4,600 more per 100 students per year, using pricier nondairy substitutes that can also pack more calories and fat.
Additionally, a survey conducted by Prime Consulting looked at how the reintroduction of low-fat flavored milk impacted overall milk volume and consumption in schools. They found that 11 school districts in Texas and Oklahoma that reintroduced low-fat flavored milk showed an increase of 8% in flavored milk volume and 2% in overall milk volume, compared to the prior school year when all flavored milk was fat-free.
Milk was a foundation of student nutrition long before the federal government started subsidizing meal programs. Efforts to serve milk in schools began in Chicago and New York in 1940 to combat the lingering malnourishment from the Great Depression.
This tradition continues into the present day, with improved products such as low-fat flavored milk, and programs including the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Child and Adult Care Food Program, Special Milk Program and Summer Food Service Program.
The evidence backing low-fat flavored milk for students is clear, and it’s time for the USDA to implement a permanent rule allowing the nutritious product as an option in schools. Students’ nutrition and health depend on it.