The U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) has renewed its school lunch policy, which among other points, provides the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) has renewed its school lunch policy, which among other points, provides the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk. This loosens a restriction which only permitted fat free flavored milk.

The new policy goes into effect for the 2019-2020 school year.

White milk options are still either fat free, or 1%.

Congressman Tom Marino (R-PA), while hailing this decision as an important step, is promoting a bill he introduced in April 2018 that calls for restoring whole milk in public school cafeterias.

In his press statement, Marino noted that milk consumption in schools has declined exponentially since the passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Local perspective

Brenda Zelier is the Food Services Director at Wallenpaupack Area School District (WASD) and is a professional dietician. She has been at WASD 30 years.

She said that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act put into place a lot of regulations that school districts must follow to provide the nutritional standards and allow districts to be reimbursed by federal dollars.

It goes far beyond milk. She also cited examples of ensuring children take at least a half cup  of vegetables and a half cup of fruits each day, and the types of bread that are used.

Cartons of milk, she said, are no longer required to be taken by students. They have the option of taking water instead. Preschoolers in the Head Start Program, however, are required by the USDA to be given milk.

“As a dietician, I feel they should take milk, for the calcium and protein,” she said.

She said the number of students who take milk has gone down over the years.

She said this may be because of the low fat content. The taste may be the reason, she said.

Until this school year, they could only offer no-fat flavored (chocolate milk or strawberry milk) or either no-fat or 1% white milk. Now they can offer flavored milk that has 1% fat.

Justin Roselli, Food Service Supervisor for Delaware Valley School District, said, “DV students are not required to take milk but most seem to. Milk sales are up on average because meals have increased and most of the students take one with their meal.”

Whole milk; pros and cons

Asked for her view on reintroducing whole milk, Zelier stated that she feels toddlers should drink whole milk because they burn a lot of calories and need the protein. If a child refuses the no-fat lot low-fat varieties and choose whole milk if it were allowed, she said at least they would be getting their calcium.

On the other hand, she said, many students are obese, and probably should take the no-fat or low-fat milk.

Whole milk can be part of a healthy diet, she said, if the child gets enough exercise. It does, however, have a higher concentration of saturated fat, a source of cholesterol. “It’s all about moderation and balance,” she said.

Roselli noted that there are studies that have been done about offering whole milk that are proponents of both views.

The Cafeteria Report for Wallenpaupack for November 2018 reports that on average each month,13,424 breakfasts (748 daily) and 27,037 lunches (1,690 daily) are served.

Delaware Valley, which is a larger school district, serves on the average each month, 14,116 breakfasts and 46,191 lunches.

Milk costs 50 cents at both Wallenpaupack and DV schools.

Zeiler said that the children pay for the milk directly only if they bring a bagged lunch or if they want a second carton on their tray. The milk price is included with the lunch and breakfast price.

Family cooperation

Little milk is wasted, Zeiler said, since the students are given the option if they want it. What is often wasted, she said, are the fruits and vegetables that are required to be taken.

This is despite the school district’s efforts at encouraging a healthy lifestyle.

Cooperation from families is important, she said; choices a child makes at home often carries over to the school cafeteria.

Eating healthy, balanced meals at home can sometimes be a challenge, where processed, convenient foods might be chosen due to a lack of time to prepare healthier meals, or students who are “on the go.”  Zeiler suggested that when a parent has time to make a healthier meal, to make enough for left-overs.

USDA’s view

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the amended policy which went into effect December 12. According to the USDA, it empowers local schools with additional options to serve healthy and appealing meals.

Schools will be able to implement school nutrition standards for milk, whole grains, and sodium.

“USDA is committed to serving meals to kids that are both nutritious and satisfying,” said Perdue. “These common-sense flexibilities provide excellent customer service to our local school nutrition professionals, while giving children the world-class food service they deserve.”

The actions taken impact nearly 99,000 schools and institutions that feed 30 million children annually through USDA’s school meal programs. This rule is part of USDA’s Regulatory Reform Agenda, developed in response to President Trump’s Executive Order to eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens.

Grains and sodium

The Child Nutrition Programs: Flexibilities for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Requirements final rule offers schools new options as they serve meals under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), School Breakfast Program (SBP) and other federal child nutrition programs. The rule:

Provides the option to offer flavored, low-fat milk to children participating in school meal programs, and to participants ages six and older in the Special Milk Program for Children (SMP) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP);

Requires half of the weekly grains in the school lunch and breakfast menu be whole grain-rich; and

Provides more time to reduce sodium levels in school meals.

Perdue said schools have faced challenges serving meals that both are appetizing to students and meet the nutrition standards. “If kids are not eating what is being served, they are not benefiting, and food is being wasted,” said Perdue. “We all have the same goals in mind -- the health and development of our young people. USDA trusts our local operators to serve healthy meals that meet local preferences and build bright futures with good nutrition.”

Zeiler stated that the USDA regulation put into effect in 2010 required schools house all whole grain-rich breads and pastas. The USDA has relaxed this to half of the weekly grains be whole grain-rich.

School districts have been given more time to meet the USDA’s sodium standards. Zeiler noted that food manufacturers have had to adapt to the regulations to be able to market their food to the schools, which takes time.

At Wallenpaupack, she said, the salt shakers have been removed, which still produces “retaliation” at the high school. The students are encouraged to switch to pepper, herbs and spices to add flavor.

She stayed that the district was already doing a lot of what became required under the 2010 act. Zeiler commented,”I love what I do,” while the requirements have made the job more and more challenging.

Marino’s WHOLE MILK Act

Because of the 2010 law’s decrease in choice and milk consumption, Congressman Marino introduced H.R. 5640, WHOLE MILK Act.  The WHOLE MILK Act would allow local school nutrition specialists the option of offering whole milk to students if they determine it is best for the health of the children in their schools.

“USDA’s finalization of this rule is the first commonsense step we’ve seen in school nutrition over the last eight years; I applaud Secretary Purdue for his leadership. This rule will facilitate the consumption of nutritious varieties of milk by providing more choice for our students. This action is a big step forward but there is still much to do,” Marino said.

The Congressman continued, “Over the last few years, certain members of Congress have been playing politics with our children’s nutrition and the livelihoods of our dairy farmers to protect legacy legislation that has failed to do what it promised. The latest peer-reviewed science corroborates the need for higher fat content in our children’s diets and there is no better way to consume that fat than through the consumption of whole milk.

“As we move forward with the upcoming review of nutrition standards and our dietary guidelines, I look forward to working with my colleagues to ensure that we put politics aside and use the best-available science in our decisions regarding childhood nutrition and allow whole milk back into our schools.”

Good for dairy farmers

Arden Tewksbury, a long-time advocate for dairy farmers and manager of Progressive Agriculture, Meshoppen, Pa.,said that if whole milk were reintroduced it would definitely be a plus for the struggling dairy industry. He said that the health of kids, especially, would benefit from drinking whole milk.
Having better tasting milk, he said, will encourage children to drink it.

He stated that the USDA’s decision to allow low fat, flavored milk “is a step in the right direction.” Tewksbury expressed concern that Marino’s bill will be left to die in the committee and never come up for a vote.

Tewksbury has been interceding for many years for a more fair formula to give dairy producers a way to make a living on the milk there cows produce. He noted that Pennsylvania dairy farmers are underpaid by $5 million a year, and nationally, by $7 billion.