Dairy Industry Questions School Nutrition Rules Limiting Flavored Milk

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) commended the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for highlighting the nutritional role that dairy products play in the final regulations governing the reimbursable school meal program. At the same time, the association expressed concern that restrictions on flavored milk could reduce overall milk consumption in schools in favor of less healthy alternatives.

The USDA rule for reimbursable meals will put in place the provisions of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Congress passed in late 2010. The act aims to improve the quality of all foods and beverages offered in schools and to align school menus with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It requires schools to offer 8 ounces of fluid milk with each school lunch and breakfast, but only low-fat and fat-free plain milk and fat-free flavored milks are allowed.

The new rule includes yogurt and cheese as meat alternates for meals and identifies lower-fat and lower-sodium cheeses available to schools. It also allows for 5-day averaging for calorie caps, saturated fat and sodium, so schools will retain flexibility for incorporating cheese, pizza and other foods containing dairy into weekly meal plans.

 “We applaud the strong support of dairy as a vital component of a healthy diet and appreciate the priority attention USDA has given to improving the foods and beverages served in our nation's schools,” said Connie Tipton, IDFA president and CEO in a prepared statement. "However, we are disappointed that USDA has placed limits on milk varieties ahead of constraints on competing beverages widely available today."

To date, USDA has not issued rules governing these "competitive foods," so milk will continue to face tough competition from other a la carte beverages sold at schools until USDA completes the rulemaking process. Those proposed rules are slated for release early this year.

"Eliminating low-fat flavored milks, which kids like, and still allowing a wide variety a la carte beverages like juice beverages, sports drinks and soda at schools will reduce milk consumption," said Tipton.

Milk consumption in schools has declined among children and teens, and research shows that much of this decline is attributed to the wide availability of other beverages at schools. When beverages other than milk, 100-percent juice and water are offered, total milk consumption at school drops 9 percent to 28 percent.

Earlier this year, IDFA leaders sent a to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to highlight the continuing decline in milk consumption at schools and the corresponding rise of competing beverages available on school grounds. They expressed concern that schools might use USDA's final school meal rule as their basis for all school milk purchases.

"Our industry would prefer an attainable restriction on added sugars or a calorie limit rather than the exclusion of low-fat flavored milk as proposed in the school meal rule," the MIF letter said.

Congressman Joe Courtney, D-Conn., and Congressman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., members of the House Education and Workforce Committee that oversees the school meal program, also wrote to the secretary asking for consistent standards for milk and all beverages sold in schools.

"Given the nutritional value of milk, including low-fat flavored milk, we are deeply concerned that USDA would take action that could drastically reduce milk consumption in schools in favor of less healthy alternatives," the legislators said.

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