Questioning milk’s supremacy in school lunchrooms

Four children in lunch line with milk cartons on their trays

June 21, 2024 —Americans have long been told that cow’s milk is an essential part of a healthy diet, especially for children. But nutrition experts are increasingly questioning whether it merits a protected spot on the nation’s school lunch trays.

Schools must offer milk at every breakfast and lunch service to qualify for federal reimbursement, and some require that all children take it. Other beverages such as water can’t be offered in a way that competes with milk and can’t be used as a substitute for it in a reimbursable meal.

These policies are a problem for multiple reasons, experts say. Most people of color and many white people are lactose intolerant and can be made ill by consuming dairy. In addition, requiring kids to take milk leads to considerable food waste as nearly half of it winds up in the trash. Dairy milk production has a higher carbon footprint than non-dairy alternatives such as soy or almond milk. And what’s more, its nutrition superstar status appears to have been overstated.

Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, has said that milk is optional for people who are consuming a healthy diet, and that it is not necessary for most adults and adolescents to consume the recommended three daily servings of dairy.

Citing this research in a May 31 Vox article, Erica Kenney, assistant professor of public health nutrition, said that milk should always be optional in school meals. She noted that while children and adults need calcium for healthy bones, it can come from other sources than milk, including nuts, tofu, and dark leafy greens. There are also other ways to improve bone health, such as reducing alcohol consumption and exercising.

Read the Vox article: Big Milk has taken over American schools

Photo: iStock / bonniej