Two bills introduced this Congressional session shed light on the opposing camps fighting over the milk served in school cafeterias. In one, a slew of youth grassroots activists are advocating for their right to non-dairy milk alternatives whereas in the other, the dairy industry and its supporters in Congress are pushing the idea that cow’s milk is an essential part of a growing child’s diet.
Representatives Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA) and Kim Schrier (D-WA) have penned The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2023, which would dictate the return of whole milk to school menus, overturning a ban dating back to 2010.
Meanwhile, in March, the Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth (ADD Soy) Act, was introduced by Rep. Troy A. Carter (D-LA) and Congresswoman Nancy Mace (R-SC) to require that a dairy milk alternative be made available for students who request it. Now, a group of Senators including John Fetterman and Corey Booker have introduced the ADD SOY Act to the Senate.
Grassroots Student Activists Support ADD SOY Act
For Representative Troy Carter, the issue of alternative milks in schools is a matter of public health. “Too many children who cannot safely or comfortably consume dairy are being forced to accept containers of cow’s milk on their lunch trays,” the Representative from Louisiana’s 2nd Congressional district said in a press release.
Close to 70 percent of the world’s population suffers from lactose intolerance, yet schools are required to offer students both flavored and unflavored dairy milk for both breakfast and lunch. Now, some of those students are speaking out in support of the ADD SOY Act, working collectively as part of the grassroots youth organization The Raven Corps.
“The only reason that some people have developed the literal mutation to be able to digest lactose is because…Europe [was] able to domesticate cattle,” says Shubhangi Bose, an activist with the group. “Most people in the world are lactose normal,” a term she uses to highlight the fact that most people can’t easily digest dairy.
Dating back to 1954, the school milk program was viewed as both a solution to agricultural surplus and a way of improving childhood nutrition. Yet Bose argues that another explanation is who has controlled the science. For most of the history of nutrition research, white men have set the standard for what constitutes a normal diet.
The Enduring Racism of White-led Nutrition Research
Despite numerous studies highlighting the inability of many BIPOC and other populations to digest dairy, including studies of Black, Asian, Mexican American and Jewish patients, nutrition science researchers continued to attribute these findings to personal habits or individual genetics rather than see the most obvious conclusion that virtually all non-white populations were experiencing digestive upset. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that scientists acknowledged that the ability to digest dairy was not the biological norm for most people, yet even then the dairy industry funded research — with a sample consisting of only two Black people — to challenge that conclusion.
When you look at a demographic breakdown of who can and can’t consume dairy, the implications of white-led nutrition science become clear. Only about 5 percent of Northern and Central Europeans have to deal with lactose intolerance, meanwhile most BIPOC students are unable to digest dairy. Up to 80 percent of Black, Hispanic and Jewish students are afflicted with lactose intolerance while for Asian and Native American students, virtually all are unable to digest milk.
Jonathan Nez, former president of the Navajo Nation, testified to the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on September 12. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are updated every five years and are used to guide policy decisions, including what type of milk should be in schools. The process is underway for the 2025 version, and Nez used his testimony to outline the public health risks if the committee were to perpetuate white nutrition as the norm.
U.S. Government Has Long Pushed Dairy Agenda
Like many Indigenous communities in the U.S. and elsewhere, the Navajo Nation was removed from their land and provided with rations from the government, says Nez.
In fact, for most of their history, the Diné tribe did not consume dairy at all, but instead followed a mostly plant-based diet. According to records, their eating habits contributed to longer lifespans than Spanish colonizers. Yet due to government programs, dairy and milk replaced the three sisters — squash, corn and beans — resulting in poor health outcomes and a separation from their cultural traditions.
Once they made it back to their home, the unhealthy yet prescribed foods had now become the norm, contributing to disproportionately high rates of obesity, diabetes and other health issues that persist to this day.
Dairy products, including milk, take a heavy toll on the planet. Milk from cows is higher in emissions than any plant-based alternative, and uses more land and water, even than almond milk. Air pollution from dairy farms kills almost 2000 people every year, mostly from the ammonia emitted from manure pits.
Cows suffer to produce roughly 11,000 gallons of milk, living in crowded conditions and are repeatedly impregnated until their bodies break down.
In schools, about 45 million gallons of dairy milk ends up in trash cans. Translated into dollars, that’s $300 million, says Congresswoman Nancy Mace in the release..
The damage isn’t done once the unopened cartons have been tossed either — as they decompose in landfills, that milk contributes to the 170 million metric tons of CO2 belched by rotting food waste annually.
Corporate Interests Back the Whole Milk Bill
Representatives Thompson and Schrier are pushing a very different agenda by backing a bill that would add whole milk back into schools. This is the third time Thompson has introduced such legislation. Reportedly descended from a long line of dairy farmers, the Chair of the Food and Agriculture committee accepted over $75,000 in dairy industry donations during the 2022 campaign cycle.
Thompson called the proposal a “win-win” in a press release, but there’s scant evidence pointing to any unique health benefits of milk, whole or not, and the damaging impacts of dairy on BIPOC kids raises questions about whether the U.S. should continue to prop up the industry.
Dairy Industry Campaigns to Fight Decline of Milk
The bottom line is milk simply isn’t anything special. Even the nutrients it’s best known for — vitamins A and D — are the result of fortification.
Milk drinking continues to dwindle in the U.S., yet the dairy industry has been highly entrepreneurial in its efforts to combat this trend. Some tactics, such as paying TikTok influencers, have been more successful than others — like the infamous “Wood Milk” commercial.
Representative Thompson isn’t the only lawmaker taking dairy industry donations. In 2020, companies and individuals associated with the dairy industry spent an impressive $6.9 million to influence policy making, and an additional $5.1 million to federal-level electoral campaigns.
Neither bill has become law just yet. In June, The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2023 successfully passed the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Meanwhile, the ADD SOY Act has found bipartisan support from the Senate.
Even though most Native Americans are lactose intolerant, says the former president of the Navajo Nation, “the dietary guidelines still push us to consume milk.” Ultimately, says Nez, the dietary guidelines’ continued emphasis on milk and dairy products is quite simply “inappropriate.”
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.