Offer Nondairy Milk in Schools

The Physicians Committee

Offer Nondairy Milk in Schools

Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program must always offer nondairy milk. Soy milk is the only nondairy milk that is deemed “nutritionally equivalent” for reimbursement under school lunch nutrition regulations.

In fact, nondairy plant-based milk is nutritionally superior to dairy milk by providing key amounts of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and protein without any of the health risks posed by dairy milk.

Currently, school-grade soy milk is reimbursable as part of a school meal but for many schools, students must first use a guardian or medical note and there is no guarantee the school will provide soy milk. Despite more school-grade brands of soy milk available, schools can be at a financial loss when purchasing soy milk on the open market. Ultimately, children in these programs are denied the choice to consume healthier beverages.

The new nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast require fluid milk be fat-free if flavored and low-fat or fat-free if unflavored. However, researchers from Harvard found that even fat-free dairy milk is linked to prostate cancer in men. Further, as many as one-third of American children are lactose intolerant or have allergies to dairy milk, and many more parents are having their children drink nondairy milks.

  • Under Offer Versus Serve (OVS), schools participating in the National School Lunch Program do not have to offer dairy milk as part of the reimbursable meal for breakfast and lunch. OVS requires that students are offered a minimum of four items for breakfast and five for lunch, but are only required to take three. This policy was implemented to prevent the problem of plate waste when students are forced to take food that they do not want.
  • If OVS is not available, children have to take dairy milk. While an acceptable milk substitute can be offered, most schools do not offer any substitutes.
  • Because of the widespread but incorrect belief that milk is essential for good health, food service staff will often require that elementary school children take milk. Food service staff is taught about the value of milk by training sessions provided by the USDA and through free “educational materials” donated by the Dairy Council.
  • While all high schools use OVS, grades K through 8 can use OVS as well to give students more nondairy options. However local school food authorities are permitted to impose further requirements and children in grade schools are often pressured to take milk.
  • A problem with OVS as it stands is that while children may refuse dairy milk, they are almost never offered a superior nondairy replacement.

Dairy Milk and Health Risks

Numerous scientific studies link the consumption of dairy milk to obesity, anemia, ear infections, constipation, respiratory problems, heart disease, and some cancers. Due to the dangers of dairy milk, neither low- or non-fat milk nor dairy milk with added lactase, such as Lactaid milk, is a suitable alternative.

As many as one-third of American children are lactose intolerant or have allergies to dairy milk. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians’ 2002 report on lactose intolerance, 60 percent to 80 percent of blacks, 50 percent to 80 percent of Hispanics, 80 percent to 100 percent of American Indians, 95 percent to 100 percent of Asians, and 6 percent to 22 percent of American non-Hispanic Caucasians are lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance, which is sometimes apparent as early as age 3, causes flatulence, cramping, diarrhea, and bloating after eating dairy products, and can range from mild to severe.

Soy Milk is Popular

A Physicians Committee study in three ethnically diverse elementary schools in south Florida found that not only did students choose soy milk more than 22 percent of the time, but the percentage of children choosing a calcium-rich beverage, either dairy milk or soy milk, had increased from 79 percent to 83 percent. Students who chose soy milk consumed an average of 58 percent of the carton, while students who chose dairy milk consumed 52.6 percent. The researchers had defined an adequate level of acceptability as 10 percent of children who purchase lunch choosing soy milk after four weeks.

Given that so many children selected soy milk even after the initial novelty of the product had worn off, the research team concluded that the National School Lunch Program should consider enriched soy milk as a viable alternative to dairy milk in schools.

For more information on increasing plant-based options in the school lunch program, see the Resources for Schools section.