Congratulations to the Los Angeles Unified School District! Yesterday, school board members unanimously voted in favor of bringing healthful plant-based options to L.A. schools next fall in a pilot program championed by students, parents, and doctors. Lila Copeland, an inspiring 15-year-old LAUSD student, launched the campaign back in 2016. Before board members made their decision last night, I joined Lila and other LAUSD students in offering a testimony about the importance of this initiative.
Adding vegan options is a tremendous step toward keeping students healthy, but removing unhealthful foods from the menu is equally important. That’s why the Physicians Committee recently filed a lawsuit to stop LAUSD and Poway Unified School District, also in California, from serving students processed meats—including hot dogs, pepperoni, and luncheon meat—which are linked to colorectal cancer.
We’re still working on getting processed meats out of LAUSD. But in the meantime, read my testimony that helped get vegan options in:
I am Neal Barnard, M.D., Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., President of the Physicians Committee, and Fellow of the American College of Cardiology.
Thank you for considering giving students access to healthful plant-based foods. There is always controversy whenever you talk about food, of course, but this is a great idea, and you really deserve accolades for it.
This is actually important for every student—not just those who are already looking for vegan choices, but for every student. Students who have a chance to try plant-based meals gain familiarity with the most healthful foods—completely free of animal fat and cholesterol, and rich in vitamins, fiber, and protein in its most healthful form. And they set the stage for healthy habits in the future.
And those who take advantage of plant-based choices at every meal are adopting the healthiest possible eating pattern. As you know, plant-based diets have been recognized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee for their health benefits.
Plus, plant-based meals are sometimes the cheapest, because they can be built from beans, rice, and other simple ingredients.
Some people who are not familiar with plant-based diets may ask if they provide adequate nutrition. The fact is they provide better nutrition than is typical of most American diets. Plant-based foods are rich in vitamins, minerals, and healthful fiber, and provide more than enough protein, without the animal fat and cholesterol that children do not need. Meats do have protein and iron, but plant-based diets have more than enough of both in more healthful forms. Dairy products do have calcium, but greens and beans do, too, in a more absorbable form. Meats and dairy products have no fiber and are poor sources of many vitamins, and they tend to push healthful vegetables and fruits off the plate. That’s why plant-based diets stack up much better on structured nutrition rating systems, such as Harvard’s Alternative Healthy Eating Index.
This initiative shows you really care about your students—all your students. Studies show that children who grow up with plant-based foods have much less risk of becoming overweight as adults. And in a 2009 study, nearly 8 percent of people following typical American diets had diabetes. For people following vegan diets, that figure was just 2.9 percent, and they are also much less likely to develop heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and certain cancers.
If children are unfamiliar with plant-based options and never learned the taste of a meal without cheese and meat, they have one arm tied behind their backs.
Many students have learned that the United Nations and other authorities have called for reducing consumption of meat, dairy products, and animal products in general for the sake of the environment. They understand that beef and dairy cows belch methane into the atmosphere, and that raising feed for chickens, pigs, and other animals consumes an enormous amount of water and fertilizer. When schools ignore these considerations, students feel they are living among climate change deniers. Every student needs a healthy, plant-based option accessible every day.
And there is more to it. The majority of people of color have trouble digesting lactose—the milk sugar—which can then cause bloating and diarrhea. This is not a disease; it’s the biological norm. By the teen years, many children have symptoms that can get in the way of studying, athletic performance, and day-to-day activities. Dairy-free meals and beverages should be available for all children, without forcing them to get a doctor’s note for what is a perfectly normal condition.
While you do your wonderful work making sure that children are as well-equipped as possible for what life has in store for them, the greatest threats they will face come from physical problems—overweight, heart disease, diabetes, and others. So if your son or daughter were to say, “I’d like to bring more plant-based meals into my life,” or “I really want to help the environment,” or “I want to be compassionate in my eating choices with your help,” I hope your answer will be a resounding “Yes!”
Dairy milk doesn’t do a body good—no matter the flavor or fat content—and shouldn’t be served in school lunches. But Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced yesterday that he is directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow schools to serve 1 percent flavored milk through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
Milk creates a surprising range of health issues for students—from acne to bloating, cramps, and diarrhea for all those children who suffer from lactose intolerance, which affects approximately 65 percent of the human population, especially African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians, and Asian Americans. And because milk is naturally loaded with lactose sugar and plenty of calories—even before adding chocolate or strawberry flavoring—it’s about the same as soda when it comes to unwanted calories.
When those milk-drinking children reach adulthood, they are at higher risk for more serious health problems, including prostate and breast cancers, hip fractures, and even early death.
But students reduced their risk for these diseases when the USDA restricted flavored milk in school lunches a few years ago: “In just the first two years after low-fat flavored milk was removed from the program, 1.1 million fewer school students drank milk with their lunch,” said the National Milk Producers Federation yesterday.
That’s good for students, but bad for business. Sec. Perdue said yesterday that “we also have a responsibility to our shareholders.” Who are these shareholders? The dairy industry, of course. The International Dairy Foods Association said that “when kids don't drink milk, it's extremely difficult for them to get the proper amounts of calcium, potassium, vitamin D and other nutrients that dairy foods supply."
That’s simply not true. Grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fortified foods can provide all of these nutrients—without the health risks of milk.
But Sec. Perdue says that “milk is a key component of school meals, meaning schools must have more options for students who select milk as part of their lunch or breakfast.”
Then one of those options should be plant milks, which would likely be more popular than flavored dairy milk. Sales of almond milk grew 250 percent between 2010 and 2015, while the total milk market shrank by more than $1 billion.
Sec. Perdue should put the health of the nation’s students before dairy industry shareholders by keeping flavored milks out of school lunches.
It seems that unicorn food is everywhere these days—from Starbucks to the pages of The New York Times. What is the unicorn food fad? It’s all about eating beautiful, bright foods in every color of the rainbow. But I’d suggest sticking to fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans. Unicorns may be mythical, but the health benefits of the nutrition rainbow aren’t.
The arrival of a new administration in Washington portends great changes in the political landscape. Many people are asking what this will mean for efforts to promote health, good nutrition, and ethical research. Will the new administration halt initiatives for healthy school meals and gut regulations that protect animals? Or will the opposite happen? Perhaps fiscal conservatives in the new administration will seek to end subsidies for the meat and dairy industries that drive up taxes and inflate health care costs. For now, it is too early to tell.
The sudden disappearance of the USDA animal welfare database in February was not a good sign. The database lists animal welfare violations and, as we report in this Good Medicine, its removal was a boon to animal abusers. The Physicians Committee is now suing the federal government to restore the database, working with a coalition of groups that are affected by this unwelcome change.
Troubling as this change at USDA was, it is too early to judge what the next four years will bring overall. In the world of nutrition, neither side of the political aisle has been a vigorous champion. Both are consistently lobbied by the meat, dairy, and snack food industries and have responded with federal subsidies, industry-friendly regulations, and the thoughtless inclusion of unhealthy foods in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The last administration aimed to do better than its predecessors, declaring war on childhood obesity with the Let’s Move campaign, but beat a quick retreat under intimidation by the food industry.
On the other hand, both sides of the aisle helped bring progress on animal testing last year with the passage of the Lautenberg Act which greatly favors nonanimal testing methods. This was the result of a successful roll-up-your-sleeves campaign that crossed the political divide.
So the Physicians Committee will work with the executive branch, Congress, and the courts for good health, smart science, and compassionate research. As always, we approach our work with neither pessimism nor unfounded optimism, but with determination.
Exploiting economically disadvantaged people as a way to prop up dairy profits is wrong. But the dairy industry is at it again. The International Dairy Foods Association just asked Congress to bail out the tanking industry by coercing SNAP (formerly food stamps) participants to purchase more milk and cheese. It’s a bad idea targeting a population particularly vulnerable to heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions linked to dairy products.
On March 22, Michael D. Dykes, president and CEO of the International Dairy Foods Association, told the House Agriculture Committee that the association wants the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program—which is aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable consumption—to be reauthorized and expanded in the next Farm Bill to give SNAP participants incentives to purchase milk and dairy products.
“We believe adding voluntary incentives to encourage SNAP participants to increase their consumption of milk and dairy foods would be nutritionally sound and a wise use of taxpayer dollars,” said Dykes.
It would not. More milk means greater mortality risk from conditions including heart disease. Last month, the American Journal of Epidemiology published a study of more than 140,000 men and women. Those who consumed the most milk and the fewest servings of fruits or vegetables had higher mortality rates. The increase in risk was almost three-fold among the women participants.
But another study found that replacing dairy fats with plant-based foods decreases heart disease risk. This makes sense for SNAP participants, who are already at increased risk for death from heart disease.
A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health found that SNAP participants increased their risk of death from heart disease and had three times the diabetes mortality rate when compared to income-ineligible nonparticipants. They also had an increased risk compared to income-eligible nonparticipants.
Dairy products are also linked to cancer, hip fractures, and lactose intolerance, which affects approximately 65 percent of the human population.
The Healthy Staples Program, which I recently proposed in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is one possible remedy. It would encourage SNAP participants to choose a “package” of disease-fighting plant-based foods (with preparation tips and easy meal ideas) that participating grocers would supply.
The “Healthy Staples Program” could also save SNAP $26 billion each year. It would provide SNAP recipients abundant food and complete nutrition while reducing the average monthly benefit used per person from $126.39 to $78.66 each month. These cost savings can be reinvested into SNAP to expand its benefits.
The International Dairy Foods Association’s plan, on the other hand, would actually cost taxpayers, who are already paying tens of millions of dollars to bail out the dairy industry. Last August, the USDA announced that it would buy 11 million pounds of unwanted cheese at a cost of $20 million. Two months later, the USDA said it would buy an additional $20 million of cheddar cheese.
Continuing to bail out the dairy industry is a losing proposition. A recent report found that U.S. dairy sales will continue to decline until 2020 and that “growth of non-dairy milk will continue as consumers perceive it a better-for-you alternative to dairy milk.”
In response, Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin recently introduced the Dairy Pride Act, to “defend” the dairy industry from plant-based products.
It’s too late. As more and more Americans ditch dairy products for healthy plant-based options, it’s unfair for the U.S. government to continue propping up the dairy industry by dumping disease-causing milk and cheese into nutrition assistance programs that should promote healthful foods instead.
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