Why Wasting Milk in Schools is a Bigger Problem Than You Think

Mar 7, 2022

The long and sordid relationship between the U.S. government, the dairy industry, and the National School Lunch Program have put cow’s milk in front of billions of American children for generations.

However, while millions of dollars are spent on milk production, government subsidies, and salacious marketing campaigns – more of it is being thrown out by children than ever before.

Kids Are Tossing Cow’s Milk in Record Numbers

The National School Lunch Program provided lunch to 30 million children each school day in fiscal year 2019. The reimbursement rate for milk that year was 20.5 cents per carton. If 90% of lunches were served with milk, the USDA spent around $1 billion dollars on cow’s milk in American schools.

An eye-opening statistic emerged from a recent USDA analysis of the program. It found that 29 percent of school milk cartons are thrown away by the kids, untouched.

That’s $300 million dollars literally thrown in the trash every single year. Why is this?

Maybe it’s because many kids don’t like drinking cow’s milk because it makes them feel awful?

In fact, more and more kids are becoming aware of their lactose intolerance, despite the USDA mandate that forces cow’s milk in schools to the detriment of 50 million children. Not only is milk the most common and severe food allergy in children under 16, over one-third of the US population is lactose intolerant, meaning at least one in three kids cannot safely or comfortably consume cow’s milk.

The dairy debate remains heated, yet medical doctors, researchers, and university faculty across the globe have published in multiple esteemed scientific journals about the significant links between dairy and multiple health-related problems in children and adults alike. Accordingly, recommendations have been made that nutrition programs offer children dairy-free beverages, guidance that we take seriously for the public good. 

Lactose Intolerance in BIPOC Communities

Lactose intolerance disproportionately affects BIPOC populations. Between 70-95% of Black, Asian, Indigenous American, and Latinx individuals suffer symptoms after consuming dairy. 

Yet, federal law requires milk to be served with school meals in order for state public school authorities to be reimbursed by USDA for the meals provided.

Pressuring children to ingest cow’s milk at school that will make them sick isn’t just ignorance. When a white majority makes decisions that will negatively impact minorities, it is a form of dietary racism.

Those unaffected (mainly white people) tend to view lactose intolerance as a minor issue, but that’s almost certainly because it’s not a shared health experience. Lactose intolerance is not benign. It undermines learning and classroom performance and puts kids of color at an additional disadvantage.

We believe that students should not sit in the classroom with an empty stomach. They need proper, healthy nutrition to thrive and perform at their best. However, we also believe that children of color in underserved communities should not be coerced to sit in the classroom with a tummy full of a fluid that makes them sick and unwell.

In 2020, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recognized soy milk as a nutritional equivalent to dairy milk. But nutritional equivalency and cafeteria availability are not the same thing, and public schools do NOT have soy milk available to children who need it most. To provide all students with a nutritional beverage that won’t make them sick – and to respect public schools’ tight budgets – the USDA needs to make soy milk readily available at all U.S. public schools and fully reimbursable, so that ‘children may have a right of choice’.

The Dairy Industry Is Aware of the Problem

A 2019 article from Hoard’s Dairyman cites the causes of the school milk waste problem as “changes in fat percentages allowed in schools, the pulling of full-fat flavored milk, and general changes in student preferences.”

The article also acknowledges a recent study by the Food Waste Warrior program which reported that as much as 45 million gallons of milk were wasted last year in school lunchrooms valued at $138 million. The study predicted that total food waste in schools could cost as much as $9.7 million per day or $1.7 billion per school year.

The statistics were compiled from nine states and 46 schools from January to June 2019. On average, each school produced 28.7 cartons of milk equivalent waste per student per year. Elementary schools averaged 37.6 cartons per student and middle schools tallied 19.4 cartons of waste per student. In one of the studied cities, students wasted 58 cartons per student per year.

The study concluded that milk waste could be reduced in schools by “allowing kids more time to eat and providing younger children with smaller serving sizes of milk.”

We don’t think the issue is allowing students more time to drink the milk or adjusting the serving sizes of milk. It’s clear that kids, especially children of color, have a growing awareness that cow’s milk makes them feel sick and they’re choosing not to drink it.

Our solution: Ask the USDA to offer equal milk for all kids and provide fully reimbursable soy milk as a non-dairy alternative so children can get the nutrition they need and have the energy and mental focus to excel in their academic, creative, and athletic pursuits.

Learn more about the twisted history of milk in America and our initiatives to abolish dietary racism.

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