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Go to any major supermarket in America and you’ll see plenty of choices for milk, including cow’s milk but also soy, almond, oat, hemp, and other plant-based milk products, too.

Similarly, with plant-based meat, there is a treasure trove of options, but these only occupy a tiny market share – just 1% of meat consumption — while plant-based milk represents about 16% of milk sales and is climbing.

Yet there’s one setting where there’s no choice at all: breakfast and lunch offerings in our public schools, specifically for the 30 million kids who participate in the National School Lunch Program.

Our public schools receive lunch money today on one condition: They must serve cow’s milk alongside daily meals to their students. It’s a milk mandate and it’s not fair.

Source: @Switch4Good/YouTube

Advocates for a fair choice of a nutritionally equivalent plant-based milk option in schools include Wayne Pacelle of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. He says this is grossly unfair, as well as unhealthy and wasteful when you consider that cow’s milk is known to cause serious illness among racially and ethnically diverse students; factory farms are top generators of greenhouse gas emissions; the industry is cruel to animals it engineers for mass production, and because some students simply do not wish to drink it, causing waste.

“The federal government is overreaching by subsidizing and promoting milk beyond its natural appeal to consumers,” Pacelle said. “Many kids get sick from consuming cow’s milk and millions of others throw it away. Neither outcome is good for them or our country.”

Pacelle’s group, along with the nonprofit Switch4Good, have gathered a strong bipartisan coalition of federal lawmakers to back the Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth or ADD SOY Act, which would give kids a nutritionally equivalent, plant-based milk option to cow’s milk in the National School Lunch Program.

More specifically, this piece of legislation would make soy milk available not only as a choice but as a free choice in school lunchrooms, rather than require students to get a doctor’s note to have this free option, which is currently an unfair hurdle in place today in public schools across the nation.

550,000 soybean farmers in the United States tout soybeans as health-promoting and soy milk is today touted by our leading health experts for its nutritional value, including by researchers in a study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology, who conclude: “It is quite clear that nutritionally, soy milk is the best alternative for replacing cow’s milk in the human diet.”

The legislation has been endorsed by a wide variety of health experts, including Dr. “Lucky” Lakshman Mulpuri former president of the Plant-Based Nutrition Group at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, where he developed and implemented a mandatory plant-based medical curriculum for 300 first-year medical students.

“For the overwhelming majority of children of color, lactose intolerance can be debilitating and lead to upset stomachs, headaches, nausea, diarrhea or constipation and negatively impact their ability to engage in class or with their peers. This is particularly troubling given school lunches can be one of the only meals millions of children will have access to in a day. We are putting our children between a rock and a hard place forcing them to choose between feeling sick all day or missing out on vital nutrients for their growth.”

The ADD SOY Act is also being endorsed by several organizations, including the National Urban League, the National Action Network, and other civil rights, nutrition, government waste, and animal welfare groups.

Why Soy Serves as the Best Alternative to Cow’s Milk in Schools

Among the many plant-based milk alternatives around is soy milk. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) clearly and distinctly recognizes soy milk as the nutritional equivalent of cow’s milk with the same calcium, vitamin D, and Vitamin A through its 2020-2025 National Dietary Guidelines.

Some public schools currently offer soy milk in their cafeterias because it is popular, lunch managers say, but students must pay for it, unlike cow’s milk, which is free because of government subsidies.

The reason soy is not a free choice today, is because of big-money politics at the highest levels Support the factory farms that dominate all the milk sales, say advocates for a fair choice of soy in schools. They add that having a milk monopoly with a milk mandate is a dangerous situation for many reasons that span issues of our public health tied to social justice as well as a clean environment without rampant waste and animal welfare.

A Soy Alternative for Good Public Health and Social Equity

Under the law, the USDA provides a reimbursement of $1 billion for cow’s milk to public schools across the country. But this “milk mandate” denies millions of kids who are lactose intolerant a nutritious beverage option, advocates say.

Based on documented rates of lactose intolerance among different ethnic groups, perhaps half of the 30 million kids participating in the National School Lunch Program are lactose intolerant, with especially high rates among people who are Black, brown, Asian American, and Indigenous. The National Institutes of Health reports the majority of all people have a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy, and lactose intolerance “is also very common in people of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent.”

Dr. Milton Mills is a physician practicing internal medicine and critical care in underserved communities in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia, and he advocates for plant-based diets based on the adverse effects of dairy among his patients, including unnatural early puberty in children, he says.

“We know that more than three-quarters of Black people suffer medically from dairy, while our national school lunch program offers zero alternatives to dairy. That’s racial inequity. Growing up as a Black man in society and being constantly dismissed prepared me to not be afraid to be outspoken as an advocate for a plant-based diet. I have learned that as long as I form my opinions on science, ethics, and morals, I can defend them without fear or shame.”

U.S. Reps. Troy Carter, D-La., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C., introduced the ADD SOY Act (H.R. 1619) some months ago. One of four Senators leading the companion bill in the Senate (S. 2943) is Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.

“The majority of children of color are lactose intolerant, and yet our school lunch program makes it difficult to access nutritious, non-dairy beverages,” said Sen. Booker. “We must ensure that all children have access to nutrient-rich drink options that do not make them sick. This bipartisan and bicameral legislation will bring greater equity to the lunchroom, by giving students the option to choose a nutritious milk substitute that meets their dietary needs.”

Building a Clean Environment Without Rampant Waste 

It’s common knowledge today that factory farms with masses of animals and their waste are high producers of greenhouse gases that contribute to Global warming.

Cow dairy farms in particular are operations that result in a doubling of annual methane emissions from dairy manure, according to “The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies: Dirty Dairy Racket”, which analyzed the dairy industry and its polluting factory farms over the past several decades.

As our country produces more milk and forces it on our schools, advocates say, there continues to be an enormous amount of milk wasted simply because some kids do not wish to drink it, while others cannot because of allergies or lactose intolerance, schools report.

According to the USDA’s findings, 29% of the cartons of milk served in our schools are thrown in the garbage unopened, sending at least $300 million in tax dollars into the trash. Another study found that kids discard 45 million gallons of milk each year.

Sen. John Fetterman, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, is another key lawmaker backing the ADD SOY Act.

“It is totally unacceptable that there are 30 million food insecure children in our country while a lack of milk alternatives creates $300 million of food waste a year,” said Sen. Fetterman. “This bipartisan bill will create more equitable nutrition options to keep our kids happy and healthy.”

Sens. John Kennedy, R-La., and Roger Wicker, R-Miss., are the Republican co-leaders of the ADD SOY Act in the Senate.

cow at a dairy farm
Dairy farm cow. Credit: Andrew Skowron

Factory Farms for Cow’s Milk Harm Animals

Dairy cows have been engineered to produce milk at levels and rates that pose risks to their health and well-being, according to government studies.

Decades ago, a dairy cow produced 433.9 gallons of milk per year. But with selective breeding for hyperproduction, a Holstein on an industrialized farm now produces 2,695 gallons annually to keep up with the demand that our government and the industry have manufactured. That means that one cow once producing 3,621 pounds of milk a year — a remarkable biological output by any measure — is now producing an astounding 22,500 pounds. That unbelievable level of production taxes her system and leads to an array of health problems — from inflammation of the udders to foot and leg problems resulting from the massive body mass she must carry. They are often spent after just four years of production.

“We are grateful to the lawmakers who are behind the ADD SOY Act and understand the urgent need to give kids an equitable beverage choice in schools that doesn’t make them sick,” said Dotsie Bausch, president of Switch4Good and an Olympic Silver Medalist in cycling (London 2012). “By offering a nutritionally equivalent option, we can trust our nation’s children will be nourished and feel full while decreasing the exorbitant food waste that is linked to cow’s milk being forced on them.”

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