Rules leave sour taste

Dairy farmers, others push to allow whole milk in schools

Gallons of whole milk pass on a conveyor by Randy Guyer, an employee of Ritchey’s Dairy in Martinsburg. Photo for the Mirror by Isaac Ritchey

Pennsylvania dairy leaders are calling on state legislators and policymakers to urge Congress to pass reforms that would permit whole milk to be served in schools and to end the mislabeling of non-dairy products as milk.

A recent rally, which capped “Dairy Day for PA Healthy Kids,” focused on the passage of three key measures in Washington:

U.S. House Resolution 832, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District, that would give students in public schools access to a full range of milk choices — including whole milk — both flavored and unflavored. Under current federal regulations, schools can only offer students unflavored skim or 1 percent milk.

U.S. House Resolution 1769, the Dairy Pride Act, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, that calls for enforcing regulations prohibiting mislabeled milk alternatives.

The Milk in School Lunches Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., that would allow schools to serve whole milk and 2 percent milk. It also requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary to revise regulations and exclude milk fat from the cap on saturated fat in school lunches.

Since 2010, when Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, schools have been permitted only to offer students skim and 1 percent milk.

In a rule change last year, the USDA secretary allowed schools to seek a waiver to offer 1 percent chocolate milk in their cafeterias.

“The hardworking dairy farmers of this commonwealth have one goal each day: To provide nutritious, wholesome natural milk that fortifies bodies and pumps billions of dollars and thousands of jobs into Pennsylvania’s economy,” Dave Smith, executive director of the PA Dairymen’s Association, said in a statement. “We’re asking Congress and administration officials in Washington and Harrisburg to allow us to offer a full range of power-packed milk products to strengthen the bodies and fuel the minds of students in grades K-12. And we ask them to end the unfair practice of competitors who label their non-dairy products as milk.”

In a statement, Thompson said, “Milk is the No. 1 source of nine essential nutrients in the diets of our students, but if they’re not drinking milk, they’re clearly not getting these benefits.”

Thompson added that milk consumption has been declining in schools “because kids are not happy with the lack of choices.”

Caroline Zimmerman, herd manager at Dry Creek Farm, Martinsburg, is among those in favor of the whole milk act.

“The decision in 2010 to prohibit whole milk and 2 percent from being served in schools contributed to a decline in consumption, which means kids are not getting essential nutrients milk provides. This measure fixes that error and permits schools to sell whole and 2 percent milk once again,” Zimmerman said.

Area dairies are in favor of providing whole milk for schoolchildren.

“I would like to have whole milk back in the schools. It gives kids a true taste of what milk is,” said Andrew Ritchey, president of Ritchey’s Dairy, Martinsburg.

“When we provide milk to local school students, we’re trying to encourage kids to drink milk for life. We want to present a product that is served cold and tastes great — we want kids to continue to choose milk outside of school for health benefits and for taste. Skim chocolate milk isn’t our best effort to satisfy growing kids’ nutritional and flavor needs,” said Carissa Itle-Westrick, business director at Vale Wood Farms, Loretto. “Overall dairy sales — ours included — have seen an increase in whole milk consumption during the last several years. We want to be able to follow these consumer trends into the school dairy case to offer milk that has the best taste experience we can deliver.”

School districts must follow guidelines set forth by the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.

“We are required to follow their guidance. We really don’t have an opinion. What they drink is a personal choice and what they like,” said Paula Foreman, Altoona Area School District spokeswoman.

Betsy Snyder, registered dietitian/school nutrition specialist for the Hollidays­burg Area School District, favors whole milk in some cases.

“As a registered dietitian, I encourage the consumption of milk because it provides more protein than milk alternatives and provides essential nutrients that are critical for proper growth and development of our students,” Snyder said. “While I would recommend whole milk based on an individual’s weight status and exercise habits, I will continue to follow the research based regulations for the National School Lunch Program.”

Meanwhile, the state House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Martin T. Causer, R-Coudersport, has offered two resolutions: HR 402, supporting the availability of whole milk in schools, and HR 222, urging Congress and the Food and Drug Administration to defend dairy farmers by enforcing a standard of identity for the term “milk.”

HR 222 notes that plant-based milk products create confusion and that stricter enforcement by the Food and Drug Administration of the traditional standard definition of “milk” would bring clarity and help protect Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers, who have seen a drop in milk consumption since the adoption of the new school nutrition standards.

Nutritionist Althea Zanecosky said emerging scientific evidence is starting to question the advice of providing only low-fat and skim milk, particularly to children.

“These new studies raise the possibility that our current recommendations for low-fat or skim milk in early childhood years may contribute to low vitamin D status and higher body fatness,” Zanecosky said in a statement. “The new pediatric milk studies are surprising and contradict the rationale for current dietary milk recommendations for children — that one level of milk fat is for everyone, a kind of one-size-fits-all solution. If a child prefers the taste and texture of whole milk, especially over the option of no milk, then whole milk is a good choice. The choose low-fat or fat-free dairy foods message is an easy fix, but when applied to kids, it’s not that easy. The science says we can be more flexible.”

Meanwhile, Joyce said that the mislabeling of milk creates a public health issue.

“Consumers should be able to feel confident that they are getting the proper nutritional value from their dairy products and enforcing federal regulations is necessary for that to occur. In visits to dairy farm after dairy farm, I have heard about the lost revenue that plant-based dairy imitators have taken on our economy and it is incredibly urgent we continue to monitor the subject. Passing the Dairy Pride Act to revive Pennsylvania’s dairy industry is one of my top priorities this term,” Joyce said in a statement.

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