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A common sense approach to dairy in school lunches

Michael Dykes

Michael Dykes is president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association. He contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

When you work on food and agriculture policy issues here in Washington, D.C., as I have throughout most of my professional career, the beginning of each new administration and a new Congress presents both challenges and opportunities. Who will the new president appoint to key positions at the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and other key agencies? Where will agriculture fit in the policy priorities of the new Congress? Can we make progress on the issues that are important to our members?

For the dairy industry, early indications are that both the Trump administration and the 115th Congress will take a common-sense approach to perhaps one of our most important nutrition issues — dairy’s value in schools.

This spring brought two positive developments for dairy companies that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs regarding milk options and sodium reduction targets.

Early in May Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed an omnibus appropriations bill that included language to allow states to grant special exemptions from current USDA regulations to schools that want to offer 1 percent lowfat flavored milk during the 2017-2018 school year. The omnibus appropriations bill also delays work on sodium-reduction guidance and maintains the current sodium levels established for school meals.

As one of his first policy actions after being confirmed Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue issued a proclamation in May that directs USDA to change existing regulations to provide schools with the discretion to serve 1 percent lowfat flavored milk without a special exemption. It also said schools that meet sodium Target I for school years 2017–2020 will be considered compliant with USDA sodium requirements. The secretary said these steps are needed to give schools flexibility in menu planning and to encourage student participation in nutritious and appealing meal programs.

The swift action taken by Secretary Perdue and congressional leaders, including Sen. Pat Roberts, is good news for all dairy as we work to achieve our shared policy goals.

• A little background

To truly understand the importance of these actions, however, you need to look at the overly burdensome regulations that are currently in place and the unintended consequences they produced.

USDA eliminated 1 percent lowfat flavored milk as an option in school meals beginning July 2012, replacing it with fat-free flavored milk along with offerings of lowfat and fat-free plain milk. In the first two years after this popular option was removed from the program, 1.1 million fewer school students drank milk with their lunch.

That translates into 187 million fewer half-pints of milk being consumed even though public school enrollment was growing. We clearly saw that when milk choices are limited, kids drink less milk.

Children and teens who do not drink milk at school fall short of getting the three servings of milk and milk products, including yogurt and cheese, recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Less dairy means kids and teens are missing out on nutrients that are important for growth and development, like calcium, vitamin D and potassium.

• Opportunities for all of us

School nutrition professionals welcomed Secretary Perdue’s support for flexibility as they strive to prepare and serve healthy meals that are appealing to students. These nutrition professionals recognize the importance of practical flexibility under federal nutrition standards to help ease menu planning challenges and appeal to diverse student tastes. After all, offering nutritious milk to school kids and teens does no good if they don’t drink it.

Fluid milk companies have stepped up to reformulate flavored milks for schools that significantly lowered sugar and reduced calories. Today, the majority of flavored milk in schools has 150 calories or less with an average of 122 calories per 8 ounces. Added sugars have declined 55 percent in chocolate milk offered at school from 4.0 teaspoons in the 2006-2007 school year to 1.8 teaspoons in 2015-2016.

Cheese companies, too, have reformulated to provide lower-fat and reduced-sodium cheese products to schools.

But the work continues. For the coming school year, we need to encourage states and school districts to implement the new exemption program and to urge USDA to take immediate steps to change current regulations so that schools may serve lowfat flavored milk, without a waiver, beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.

I believe that these early signals from the leadership in Congress and the Trump administration mean that dairy companies will be able to overcome burdensome rules to focus on providing products for school districts that are healthy, provide essential nutrients, and taste good.

It is rewarding to know that in some small way we are helping to give kids the chance to enjoy their favorite foods while getting the proteins, fats, calcium, vitamins and minerals they need to grow and learn. This is why I love doing the work that I do.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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