National School Lunch Program Must Provide Dairy-Free Alternatives to Milk
Originally published in Animal World magazine
Every school day, more than 30 million children in over 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions receive free or low-cost meals through the federally-funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP) administered by the Food and Nutrition Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (FNS-USDA). According to the official FNS-USDA Web site, “School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements.” One of these requirements, unduly influenced by the highly political dairy industry, is that schools must serve cows' milk to be eligible for payments or donations — meaning that healthy non-dairy alternatives (such as fortified soy, rice or nut milks) are not covered under the NSLP.
A driving purpose behind the NSLP is to provide children with nutritionally-balanced foods at no or low cost that promote physical fitness and good eating habits. However, research reveals numerous health problems associated with the consumption of dairy products, including (over the long term) increased risk of cancer, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and stroke. In addition, there is a more immediate concern that affects millions of children's health on a daily basis, and that is the widespread problem of lactose intolerance.
Although only about 15 percent of Caucasians are lactose intolerant, this condition afflicts approximately 95 percent of Asian Americans, 74 percent of Native Americans, 70 percent of African Americans, and 53 percent of Mexican Americans. Children of color represent a significant proportion of those served by the NSLP, yet discriminatory policies utterly fail to meet their needs.
Effectively forcing millions of children to drink milk – despite the fact that it makes them physically ill – is a betrayal of the trust young people place in the adults who are supposed to be looking out for their best interests. The first step towards rectifying this injustice is to offer students healthy, non-dairy choices – such as vitamin-fortified soy, rice or nut milks – at no or low cost through the NSLP. Soy milk, for instance, is cholesterol-free yet high in protein, fiber, nutrients, and disease-preventing isoflavones — making it an attractive alternative to a beverage made from the milk of cows who spend several years suffering on factory farms before being slaughtered for hamburger meat.
The NSLP is part of the federal Child Nutrition Act (CNA), a sweeping piece of legislation that also encompasses numerous other government programs and is the foundation for food policy in our nation's schools. The CNA is up for reauthorization this year, providing us with a great opportunity to bring dairy-free options to schoolchildren around the country. Please visit farmsanctuary.org/get_involved/alert_cna.html to ask your federal representative and senators to ensure that children have access to non-dairy alternatives through the NSLP.