Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, drinks a bottle of chocolate milk at a Capitol rally in favor of bringing whole milk back into school cafeterias. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
Surrounded by sash-wearing dairy princesses, lawmakers gulping down chocolate milk, and a sea of concerned farmers and their families, allies of Pennsylvania’s dairy industry made a plea in the Capitol Tuesday on behalf of the country’s school children — let them drink milk.
Whole milk, that is.
In 2010, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress pushed through a measure to change school nutrition standards — including removing higher fat, flavored milks from the lunch tray — as part of an Obama administration effort to fight childhood obesity.
As part of a rollback to “make school meals great again,” President Donald Trump’s administration in 2017 started allowing kids to drink 1 percent flavored milk again.
U.S. Rep. Glenn William “G.T.” Thompson, R-15th District, wants the feds to go even further.
The congressman, whose sprawling, rural northwestern district includes large agricultural interests, was in Harrisburg Tuesday to promote his bill to put whole milk, flavored and unflavored, back into the nation’s school cafeterias.
Thompson was joined by newly-minted U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, as well as a number of rural state lawmakers who voiced their support for the state’s hurting dairy industry.
“We lost an entire generation of kids that aren’t drinking milk,” Thompson said of the Obama-era policy. “They’re not asking for milk because they have bad milk experiences at school.”
The bill is co-sponsored by Minnesota U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who is the Democratic chair of the Agriculture Committee. Seven of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional members are signed on the legislation — six Republicans and one Democrat.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has also introduced his own, similar measure.
While the dairy industry has seen a recent nosedive, milk consumption has been falling for decades. According to the Washington Post, Americans drank 37 percent less milk in 2014 than they did in 1970.
Department of Agriculture data indicates that while Americans consume as many dairy products per day in 2016 as they did in 1976, the total was buoyed by doubled cheese consumption even as milk drinking declined.
“Milk price volatility, the proliferation of imitation ‘milk’ and bottled water products, reduced consumption of ready-to-eat cereals, and legislation limiting school milk options all contributed to the decline in milk sales,” the American Farm Bureau Federation says on its website.
The Farm Bureau, a lobbying group that represents farmers and ranchers, estimates that the decline in milk sales decreased cash receipts to dairy farmers by $884 million.
Gary Lentz is a 60-year-old dairy farmer who attended Tuesday’s rally with his grandkids. He has a 110-cow farm in Lebanon County and has spent 40 years in the industry.
Lentz has watched their local dairy processor cut back on milk purchases from local farmers due to low consumption.
In the northeast, Lentz said a greater percentage of milk is sold to drink rather than to manufacture food like cheese or butter.
“And with lower consumption, that has really affected dairy producers down on the farm,” he said.
Diary allies sang the praises of milk consumption at the rally, as some drank from plastic bottles of plain and chocolate milk. They cited milk’s high levels of calcium and other nutrients as well as its protein content.
Despite years of back and forth over the role fatty foods play in America’s collectively widening waist lines, *Ann Condon Meyers, a dietician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, said she wouldn’t be concerned if Thompson’s push succeeded.
“It’s really hard to generalize, [but] we now realize that taking the fat out of our diet probably doesn’t solve our obesity problem,” Condon Meyers told the Capital-Star.
She said having kids drink milk, regardless of its fat content, is far better than drinking juice, soda, or any other sugary drinks.
Such drinks, according to Condon Meyers, can teach kids’ taste buds to “stop drinking water because it doesn’t taste sweet to them.”
But she does have one beef with the proposal. As written, Thompson’s bill would let schools serve “flavored and unflavored whole milk.”
Condon Meyers said “it would be healthier to take the flavored milks out of the choice” because they can include as much sugar as a soda — diet or otherwise.
Thompson feels his bill has a chance, considering it already has the backing of the Agriculture Committee’s chairman. The struggle now is pushing Congress to reverse its own legislation — even if the change is nearly a decade old.
“It’s hard to, once you vote for something one way, it’s hard to turn around and vote the other way,” Thompson said. “But I think if we get critical mass support, that’ll make it easier for everyone to support this.”
Correction: This piece has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of Ann Condon Meyers, a dietician at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
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