I have an urgent request for the White House as it is garnering support for its national nutrition strategy that was unveiled at the September 28 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health: Tell the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop putting students’ health at risk, and cut the red tape for them to get nondairy replacements for dairy milk in school lunches.
In the United States, cow’s milk has been viewed as the ultimate “health food” for decades. However, as a pediatrician with over 13 years in practice, my experience has shown there are many potential health risks for children associated with cow’s milk consumption, such as eczema, asthma, constipation, and chronic abdominal pain. It can increase the risk of heart disease and breast and prostate cancers in adulthood. I believe that the risks of cow’s milk consumption outweigh any potential benefits.
One of the main arguments for cow’s milk consumption is the belief that it promotes bone strength, but multiple studies have called this into question. A 2012 study published by the American Medical Association showed that active children who consumed the most cow’s milk had more bone fractures than those who consumed less. So, if milk increases the risk of several medical conditions and does not actually protect our bones, should we be forcing it upon children in schools?
Schools participating in the federal National School Lunch Program must provide a substitute for dairy milk for students who have a documented disability that restricts their diet. But for many people who are lactose intolerant — some 65 percent of the world’s population, by some estimates — the process remains onerous. A written request from a student’s physician, parent, or legal guardian, with the reason why the nondairy milk is necessary must be submitted to the child’s school. Even with that note, it’s up to school officials — not parents or students — to decide whether to fulfill it.
This “milk-note” system is cumbersome and inequitable. It creates unnecessary administrative burdens for parents and schools and disproportionately affects students of color, who are more likely to suffer from lactose intolerance.
And while it’s possible, but not guaranteed, that parents can get nondairy milk served to their lactose-intolerant children at school, others who simply want a plant-based option for other reasons, such as ethical concerns about the dairy industry, have no options.
This current system only benefits the dairy industry at the expense of children’s health.
Until Congress makes changes to the law to make it easier for all students to access nondairy milk, the USDA can make it easier for kids. The agency can issue clarifying guidance to schools about the existing statute reiterating that schools are not only authorized but encouraged to provide nondairy milk for those with dietary needs if a parent or guardian makes a request. The agency should also provide schools with a model parental notice and form for milk substitution requests to help standardize the process. And finally, the USDA can do more to even the playing field, making nondairy milks more expensive than their heavily subsidized dairy milk counterparts.
The national health and nutrition strategy should ultimately recommend bold changes to break down barriers that prevent students from accessing nondairy milk at schools.
Yami Cazorla-Lancaster is a pediatrician.
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