Bipartisan Whole Milk bill introduced in U.S. Congress

U.S. House Ag Committee ranking member G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.) is pictured here at a listening session in the summer of 2019. At that time, he mentioned the work of the Grassroots Pa. Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk as one of the best things happening in dairy. Last week, he reintroduced his bipartisan Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2021, H.R. 1861.

Will third time be charm? Will Penna. and N.Y. consider state legislation?

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, March 19, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congressman Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (Pa.-15th) wasted no time reintroducing the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act in the 117th congressional session. Although the official text of the bill introduced last Thursday, March 11 is not yet available, Thompson noted in February it would include a few structural improvements over the earlier versions.

Thompson is now the Republican Leader of the House Agriculture Committee, and he cosponsored the bipartisan whole milk bill, H.R. 1861 with Congressman Antonio Delgado (NY-19th), a Democrat.

Essentially, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act allows for unflavored and flavored whole milk to be offered in school cafeterias. This choice is currently prohibited under USDA rules of implementation from the 2010 Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that Congress passed 11 years ago to tie school lunch and other USDA food nutrition services more closely to the low-fat and fat-free stipulations from decades of USDA-HHS Dietary Guidelines. These DGAs continue to ignore the science about milkfat and saturated fat – especially where children are concerned.

“Milk provides nine essential nutrients as well as a great deal of long-term health benefits. Due to the baseless demonization of milk over the years, we’ve lost nearly an entire generation of milk drinkers, and these young people are missing out on the benefits of whole milk,” said Rep. Thompson in a statement last Friday.

“It is my hope the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act will give children a wide variety of milk options and bolster milk consumption — a win-win for growing children and America’s dairy farmers,” Rep. Thompson stated.

Rep. Delgado added: “The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act will help young people maintain a healthy diet while supporting our upstate dairy farmers and processors. I am proud to lead this bipartisan effort to provide more choices for healthy and nutritious milk in schools. This legislation is good for young people and good for our dairy producers in today’s tough farm economy.”

The Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk are hoping the third time is the charm for this legislation. Last month, they met virtually last month with Rep. Thompson, and last fall on school milk and other dairy policy concerns. Congressman Thompson has made the Whole Milk for Healthy Kid Act a high priority over the past four years during the past two legislative sessions. Some members of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk have been working on the school milk issue for a decade or more, and on the issues surrounding the flawed DGAs for even longer. 

Arden Tewksbury of Progressive Agriculture Organization has been working on this issue for many years. In addition to dairy advocacy, the retired dairy farmer is also a decades-long school board director in northern Pennsylvania.

Rep. Thompson indicated last month that he would restructure the proposed legislation for reintroduction this session, with some tweaks that should make it more workable for school foodservice directors.

He explains that in 2010, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which amended nutrition standards in the School Lunch Program. Among the changes, the law mandated that school lunches and other government-supported feeding programs be tied directly to the DGAs. The USDA at that time promulgated rules requiring flavored milk to be offered only as fat-free, and that unflavored milk could only be fat-free or 1% low-fat milk. 

Schools are audited by USDA for dietary compliance, and their compliance record affects not just their school food reimbursements, but also the educational funds a district receives for federal mandates.

USDA, in 2017, allowed schools to offer 1% low-fat flavored milk. This was a small positive change after statistics showed schools served 232 million fewer half-pints of milk from 2014 to 2016, and school milk was among the most discarded items in school waste studies conducted by USDA and EPA in conjunction with other organizations.

In fact, a Pennsylvania school — working with the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk — offered milk at all fat levels to middle and high school students in a 2019-20 school year trial. Their findings showed students chose whole milk 3 to 1 over 1% low-fat milk. During the trial, the school’s milk sales grew by 65% while the volume of discarded milk declined by 95%. This meant more students were choosing to drink milk, and far fewer students were discarding their milk and buying something else.

Tricia Adams, a member of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee, sees firsthand the response of children and teens when offered whole milk. “When we have school and community tours at the farm, we offer whole milk. The children call it ‘the good milk!’” said Adams of Hoffman Farms, Potter County, Pa. “We thank Congressman Thompson for his tireless efforts on this issue. As dairy farmers, we work hard to produce high quality, wholesome, nutritious milk, and as parents, we want kids to be able to choose the milk they love so they get the benefits milk has to offer.”

Jackie Behr, of 97 Milk, also sees the support for whole milk through the organization’s social media platforms. “We know how good whole milk is, especially for children,” said Behr. “We see the support in emails, comments and messages from the public. The science shows the benefits of whole milk, and today, more families are choosing whole milk to drink at home. Children should have the right to choose whole milk at school.”

Whole milk choice in schools has been an important signature piece of legislation for Rep. Thompson because of the triple-impact he said he believes it will have on the health of children, the economics of dairy farming and the sustenance of rural communities.

The bill’s predecessor in the 2019-20 legislative session garnered 43 cosponsors in the House.

Starting anew in the 2021-22 congressional session, the bill will need to amass cosponsors in the coming months. A companion bill in the Senate would also be helpful because the school lunch rules come legislatively through the Committee on Education and Labor in the House and through the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs in the Senate.

What’s new this time is that the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat published a feature story Friday about the 2021 Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, and the School Nutrition Association made this the top story in their weekly newsletter to school foodservice director members this week. That’s good news.

Additional good news came with the official public support voiced by National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). In a press statement released by Rep. Thompson’s office last Friday, March 12, leaders of both organizations commented.

“The recently updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans reaffirmed dairy’s central role in providing essential nutrients, including those of public health concern. The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found that 79% of 9-13-year-olds don’t meet the recommended intake for dairy,” stated NMPF president and CEO Jim Mulhern. “We commend Representatives Thompson and Delgado for introducing the bipartisan Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act. Whole milk provides a valuable way for children to obtain dairy’s nutritional benefits as part of a healthy eating pattern. This bill will help provide our children the nutrition they need to lead healthy lives.”

On behalf of IDFA, CEO Michael Dykes DVM thanked the representatives for their leadership on this bill “to allow schools more flexibility in offering the wholesome milk varieties that children and teens enjoy at home. Expanding milk options in schools helps ensure students get the 11 essential nutrients daily that only milk provides, including protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, niacin, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and potassium,” Dykes said.

A petition organized and promoted by Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk — in direct support of the earlier versions of this legislation to ‘bring whole milk choice back to schools’ — garnered over 30,000 signatures in 2019-20 – over 24,000 electronically online as well as over 6,000 by mail through Farmshine.

In recent weeks, the online petition has picked up new life as it has been mentioned in hearings and informal conversations with state lawmakers — especially in Pennsylvania and New York — and has been mentioned recently by food, nutrition and agriculture advocates on social media.

The whole milk petition effort has also gathered over 5000 letters of support in addition to the 30,000-plus signatures in 2019-20. These letters and submitted comments, online and by mail, came from school boards, town boards, county commissioners, school nurses, doctors, dieticians, professors, veterinarians, teachers, coaches, athletes, school foodservice directors, parents, students, and citizens at large.

The entire bundle of signatures, comments and letters were previously digitized by the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk and uploaded at each public comment opportunity during the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines process. Petition packets were also provided digitally and in hard copy to key members of Congress as well as the USDA Food Nutrition Services Deputy Undersecretary in fall 2019 and spring 2020.

The Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk plan to revitalize the petition as an effort to amass even more public support for whole milk choice in schools. Interestingly, this is a difficult undertaking given that the majority of Americans do not even realize — and sometimes disbelieve — that their children and grandchildren currently do not have a choice and are forced to consume fat-free or 1% low-fat milk as their only milk options because whole milk cannot even be offered ‘a la carte’.

During a New York State Senate Ag Committee hearing last month, agricultural law attorney and dairy producer Lorraine Lewandrowski asked New York State Senators to consider state-level legislation to make it legal to offer whole milk in schools as a starting point vs. federal jurisdiction. Her request was met with dumbfounded shock that this was even an issue, and some indication that it was worth taking a look at.

This week, retired agribusinessman Bernie Morrissey — chairman of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee — met with leaders in the Pennsylvania State Senate. He reports that state legislation to allow whole milk in schools was a top priority in that discussion.

In fact, Nelson Troutman, originator of the Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free painted round bales has urged states to get involved on this issue from the beginning.

“We can’t fix everything at the national level, we have to save Pennsylvania,” said Troutman, a Berks County, Pennsylvania dairy farmer.

The 97 Milk education effort that became a grassroots groundswell after Troutman painted his original round bale initially focused on Pennsylvania. However, the online and social media presence of 97milk.com and @97Milk on facebook since February 2019 has become nationwide, even global, in reach and participation.

For two years, Morrissey has garnered agribusiness support for various banners, yard signs and other tangible signs of support for whole milk in schools. Requests have come in from other states. The 97 Milk group also operates solely on donations and offers several options for showing support at their online store, where purchase requests come in from across the country as well. In addition, farm photos and ideas have come into 97 Milk from producers across the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest and West.

In much the same way, the 30,000-plus petition supporting the choice of whole milk in schools has had heavy participation in Pennsylvania and New York. However, signatures, comments and letters have been received at various levels from all 50 states. (A small portion of signatures even came from Canada, Australia, Mexico, England, Japan, India and the continent of Africa. Those, of course, had to be removed from the packets provided to USDA. However, it is telling that the simple concept of children being able to choose whole milk is a global concern.)

Likewise, Tewksbury with Progressive Agriculture Organization has long supported the right of children to choose whole milk at school. Several petition drives by Pro Ag have also amassed the tangible support of citizens, and those petitions were provided to USDA in previous years — delivered physically in boxes.

In February, Thompson stated that there are members of the House Ag Committee who want to elevate this issue of whole milk choice in schools. Thus, now is the time for organizations to come together and issue strong position statements supporting H.R. 1861 Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act and for citizens to contact their elected representatives and senators in the U.S. Congress asking for their support of the House bill and in support of a champion to come forward with a companion bill in the Senate.

The ‘bring whole milk choice back to schools’ online petition still references the earlier H.R. 832 and S. 1810 bills, and will be updated when official links to the reintroduced bill text for H.R.1861 become available.

Stay tuned for updates, and for those who have not previously signed this petition, go to https://www.change.org/p/bring-whole-milk-back-to-schools 

Bernie Morrissey continues working with producers and agribusinesses to print and distribute these yard signs of support for Whole Milk as a school lunch choice. To read more about the sign efforts taking root across PA with calls coming in from other states… click here.

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