Grassroots dairy meet with Rep. Thompson, a champion for Ag; Dietary Guidelines, whole milk in schools top the agenda

Congressman G.T. Thompson (center) is flanked on left by Dale Hoffman of Potter County and Sherry Bunting of Lancaster County and on his right by Bernie Morrissey of Berks County, Krista Byler of Crawford County and Nelson Troutman of Berks County. The Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee involved in the 97 Milk effort met with Rep. Thompson this week on dairy issues.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, October 30, 2020

BELLEFONTE, Pa. — From the Dietary Guidelines and whole milk choice in schools to dairy checkoff and milk pricing formula concerns, five members of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee involved in the 97 Milk effort from across northwestern, northern tier and southeast Pennsylvania met with U.S. Congressman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-15th) in Bellefonte, Pa. this week to talk about dairy.

Rep. Thompson helped lead the writing of a letter signed by 53 members of the U.S. House, including Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Ranking Member Mike Conaway (R-Texas) to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking for a delay on the decision about final Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) for 2020-25 until all of the science on saturated fat is considered.

Despite the bipartisan letter, Thompson indicated that USDA and Health and Human Services (HHS) will move ahead to finalize the guidelines by the end of the year.

Thompson shared his thoughts about the disconnect between the legislative branch and a bureaucratically appointed DGA Committee in formulating the DGAs which have so much impact on children and Pennsylvania’s rural economy.

With the election next week in the balance, Thompson said he is looking at introducing language that would give the legislative branch some role in advise and consent with regard to the DGAs. He also praised his colleagues from Pennsylvania as many have cosponsored the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act and the Give Milk Act. These bills would allow whole milk as an option at school and in the WIC program.

Under the current House leadership, the bill on school milk is not moving as it has not been taken up by the chair of the Committee on Education and Labor.

“As you know, our office made recommendations for members of the DGA Committee, but that didn’t happen,” said Thompson. “It’s hard to believe that the modern-day science is being ignored on this issue of whole milk. We need checks and balances, not only to serve the needs of children in school, to give them this choice, but also because of the damage these rules do to our rural economy.”

It goes without saying that if the Republicans are able to gain a majority in the House, there would be a better pathway to moving on some of these issues surrounding the way whole milk (and even 2% milk for that matter) are banned from school choices while other less nutritional beverages are offered unchecked. With Democrats in the majority for the past three years, there has been no movement on the bills.

Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee member Krista Byler of Spartansburg, Crawford County, reported to the Congressman that while the beverages offered ala carte at school are calorie controlled per serving, there are no limits on how many of these beverages a student can purchase. At the middle and high school level, sports drinks, diet tea coolers, diet soda, and energy drinks are all allowed.

“But students can’t purchase even one serving of whole milk,” she said. “They simply aren’t allowed.”

“We need to get back to where milk is not tied to the school meal calculation and let it stand alone, and give students the choice,” said Thompson.

Byler serves as head chef and foodservice director for Union City School District, and her husband Gabe operates a 125-cow dairy farm with his father and brother, along with beef cattle and grain crops.

She explained that schools are afraid to move outside of the USDA edicts based on the Dietary Guidelines because of financial repercussions, and it’s difficult to get others to see the issue because so many people are generally unaware that children are limited to only fat-free and 1% low-fat milk options at school.

Five members of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee from around the state talked about dairy issues with Congressman Thomspon, especially the Dietary Guidelines and getting whole milk choice in schools.

The group discussed ideas for how to obtain waivers from USDA to do a statewide trial where schools could simply offer all fat levels of milk and collect the data. One such trial, done quietly in Pennsylvania during the 2019-20 school year, revealed that when students at the middle and high school level were given the choice, they chose whole milk 3 to 1 over low-fat. At the same time total milk consumption rose by 65%, and the volume of milk discarded daily by students declined by 95%.

“That’s huge,” said Byler, a constituent of the Congressman. “We don’t need to reinvent a new ‘kids milk,’ we already have one that students will choose if given the opportunity.”

Thompson agreed, stating that, “Now is the time to look at something like this because what have families been turning to in this pandemic? Whole milk,” he said.

This is supported by the most recent USDA data through June showing that both whole milk and 2% milk sales made big gains in June as supply chains worked through the early Covid issues – pushing total fluid milk sales up 2.2% over year ago year-to-date January through June with whole and 2% unflavored white milk together accounting for more than 70% of all fluid milk sales categories, and whole milk alone being the largest selling category.

“Whole milk is what families are seeking when the choice is up to them,” said Thompson, indicating that while consumers are seeing the science on whole milk, the DGA committee is not.

“All of the doctors interviewed on news programs during this pandemic are talking about Vitamin D as boosting the immune system,” said Bernie Morrissey of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee.

Thompson observed that with Vitamin D and other nutrients being fat soluble, the DGAs are missing the boat.

Morrissey and Troutman are working with businesses and organizations buying and distributing “Vote Whole Milk School Lunch Choice, Citizens for Immune Boosting Nutrition – 97milk.com” yard signs that are proliferating across the countryside. A link at the 97 Milk website lets citizens know how to get involved, and a second link provides information to get involved in delaying the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines until all the science is considered on saturated fat.

Concerns about the transparency and accountability of the dairy checkoff program were also discussed, and Thompson was receptive to looking at ways to turn this around.

The Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee suggested ending the influence of importers by ending the import checkoff of 7.5 cents per hundredweight equivalent. This seemed like a good idea when it was implemented in 2007, but in retrospect has set the globalization direction of the national dairy checkoff’s unified marketing plan and ended the practice of promoting Real Seal, made in the U.S. products.

The committee was also looking at the promotion order asking the Secretary of Agriculture, who can amend the order at any time, or to work legislatively to clarify producer rights under the law in where their ‘local’ dime portion of the checkoff is assigned for education and promotion.

Nelson Troutman, a dairy farmer in Richland, Berks County, who started the Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free ‘baleboards’ noted that the corn and soybean growers have periodic review of their checkoff programs, and asked if there is a way for dairy farmers paying the mandatory checkoff to have more say on whether it should continue, or more transparency to see all of the expenditures and the plans submitted by DMI to USDA.

The Committee also suggested evaluating the way the boards are formed and even noted that the language of the order suggests the Secretary can call for a referendum even without a petition by 10% of the producers and importers. 

They noted that fresh fluid milk and other fresh dairy products are a critical market for Pennsylvania producers, but the emphasis of the industry appears to be moving in a different direction. Education, promotion and research are important, but the current direction of the national drivers is in question.  

Dale Hoffman of Hoffman Farms, Shinglehouse, Potter County and Troutman both shared the economic conditions in milk pricing and marketing of milk, especially the extreme difference between high protein value and CME cheese markets since June compared with what dairy farmers in the Northeast are actually seeing in their milk checks as negative PPDs subtract the value of their milk components.

In fact, the official Dairy Margin coverage margin for Pennsylvania is running $1 to $3 behind the U.S. average for June through September, when normally Pennsylvania runs with the U.S. average or 20 to 50 cents above it. The divergence makes it hard for producers to use risk management tools and have them function as intended.

Hoffman noted that producers have lost their ability to market their milk competitively in the region – especially in the north and west of the state — and their voice in how milk is priced is lacking. He observed that even Farm Bureau is recognizing this issue with some new recommendations.

Thompson welcomed the idea for a national hearing on milk pricing, especially as the next Farm Bill is not far off, and these issues need to be on the table early.

But first, there’s an election to get past. It is hoped that after November 3, these issues can be looked at. This has certainly been a difficult year on many fronts for all Americans, and the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee was grateful to speak with the Congressman about their concerns.

Dale and Carol Hoffman of Hoffman Farms took “Vote Whole Milk” yard signs home to Potter County.

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