Federal prohibition of whole milk in schools challenged in PA Senate committee hearing

The Pennsylvania Senate Policy Committee had a public hearing on the federal prohibition of whole milk in schools at the state capitol June 16, 2021. Pictured is school nurse Christine Ebersole driving from Martinsburg with her daughter Vanessa Wiand, an elementary school teacher, to testify in person. Some testifiers and senators joined by zoom on the big screens. Ebersole gave recorded BMI data for secondary students that would have come up through their school years before and after the whole milk prohibition. Senators Devlin Robinson, Chairman Mario Scavello, Senators David Argall, Cris Dush, and Scott Hutchinson hear Ebersole present her findings, along with Senate Education Committee Chair Scott Martin joining by zoom. At intervals throughout the hearing, other senate committee members joined in person or by zoom, including Senators Camera Bartolotta, Dan Laughlin, Bob Mensch, Judy Ward and Gene Yaw.

‘We need to do this for our children’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, June 2021

It was a deep dive into the impacts of the federal prohibition of whole milk in schools, and positive momentum chipped away at the federal log-jam. The June 16th hearing by the Pennsylvania Senate Majority Policy Committee was livestreamed. A recording as well as written testimony can be viewed at https://policy.pasenategop.com/mp-061621/ 

Even though senators came and went in person and by zoom — due to a busy morning of meetings and votes — they were engaged with good questions and insights.

By the end of the rapid-fire 90-minutes featuring 11 testifiers in three panels, Chairman Mario Scavello (R-40th) had several actionable pathways.

It was a big day for the 97 Milk effort as several volunteers were invited to testify, and Chairman Scavello (above) read — not once but twice — from a 97 Milk handout, saying he wanted to make sure it gets into the hearing record.

“All of this in an 8-ounce cup of milk is what we are taking away from kids (when they discard or don’t take the fat-free or low-fat milk served). What are they thinking out there?” Scavello declared after reading the 6×6 card Nelson Troutman (below), had given him prior to the start of the hearing.

All 11 testifiers that morning supported whole milk as a choice in schools, bringing various farm, school, organization and consumer perspectives to help state senators understand the federal stumbling blocks. Chairman Scavello complimented “the breadth and depth” of what was learned.

These actions were identified by the Chairman:

— Develop and send a Resolution from Pennsylvania to the Federal Government, and if no results, begin to look at the cost and what would be involved to do something at the state level “on our own” to position Pennsylvania schools to be able to offer fuller fat milk.

— Conduct statewide pilot trials — a school district in every county — like the 2019-20 trial at Union City Area School District, to obtain widespread data and create more awareness. Foodservice director Krista Byler had shared her milk choice trial results, and Sen. Cris Dush (R-25th) noted a similar trial was done at a school in his district.

— Reach out to Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which did not send representation to the hearing, to seek a direct answer on where the department stands on this.

— Have a second hearing in standing committee.

— Make other states aware of this federal issue and work on getting something done through National Conference of State Legislatures.

— Reach out to federal lawmakers to gain additional support and co-sponsors for H.R. 1861 Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, introduced by Representatives Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-PA) and Antonio Delgado (D-NY) in the House and to surface a companion bill in the U.S. Senate.

Layers of the onion were peeled.

The issues for students boil down to nutrition and taste. 

The issues for dairy farmers are losing a generation of milk drinkers, giving up market share to global beverage brands, and the resulting economics that are driving farms out of business at a rapid rate.

The issues for schools are lack of awareness, a decade of outright federal restrictions, years of fat-free/low-fat indoctrination among school foodservice personnel — some of this “conditioning” performed by the national dairy checkoff’s school wellness program via the MOU with USDA — and the 2 to 5 cent extra cost of whole milk in tight school budgets.

(Author’s note: currently, students aren’t even permitted to purchase whole milk on school grounds as an a la carte or vending machine or fundraiser option. It seems we could start by legalizing it there.)

Lost generation of milk drinkers cited.

“We lost a generation of milk drinkers since whole milk was taken out of the schools,” said Nelson Troutman. The Berks County dairy farmer painted the first round bale Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free. He testified that people don’t know much about milk.

“They also don’t know schools are only allowed to offer fat-free and 1% low-fat milk, that the kids don’t like it and throw it away,” he said. “We had to do something to let consumers know whole milk is not 50% fat or 10% fat or 100% fat, it’s 3.25% fat.”

Jayne Sebright, an Adams county dairy producer, mother, and executive director of the Center for Dairy Excellence said the situation is “not only scary for dairy farmers, but also for our children and our future society.

“The truth is that fuller fat milk in schools could mean the difference between a child developing a life-long milk drinking habit, or not. It’s that simple,” said Sebright. “If they don’t like milk in school, they’re less likely to drink it at home, and if they don’t drink it at home, they’re less likely to drink it as an adult, and if they don’t drink it as an adult, they are less likely to give it to their children. So not only are we losing this generation, we’re losing generations to come.”

Rob Barley, a farmer in Lancaster and York counties and chairman of the PMMB (Pa. Milk Marketing Board) encouraged state senators to help influence a change at the federal level and among other states to “fight for future milk drinkers and the farmers that produce this nutritious product.”

Mike Eby, a Lancaster County farmer, talked about how government policies and industry organizations stand between farmers and the public. Eby serves as chairman of National Dairy Producers Organization and executive director of Organization for Competitive Markets. He also represents the southeast district on the Pennsylvania Farmers Union board.

“I see the divide that keeps farmers and consumers apart — on knowledge, markets, fairness and choice. The issue of allowing children to choose whole milk at school is one that seems to escape the application of logic, freedom and fairness,” said Eby.

The state’s interest was made clear.

Troutman said the issue directly affects Pennsylvania.

“This is a fluid milk state. Pennsylvania does not have 10,000-cow dairies or huge cheese factories. We are communities of small and medium-sized farms owned by families that support their communities,” said Troutman. “We have the land, the water, and the people who want to do the work in Pennsylvania. Dairy is 37% of our number one industry: agriculture. Our dairies are struggling. Without them, we lose other businesses, jobs, support for other parts of agriculture and the economy. Tourism, we lose our tourism.”

Barley also pointed out the state’s interest.

“Fluid milk consumption is vital to the survival of the dairy industry, but even more vital to the Pennsylvania dairy producers. The premium provided by the fluid milk market and the additional premium from the Pa. Milk Marketing Board, have helped to keep Pa. dairy farmers in business,” said Barley. “If milk consumption continues to decrease, there will be a continued exit of PA dairy producers.”

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau president Rick Ebert, a Westmoreland County dairy farmer, noted that, “Providing school children with healthy milk choices is one of our organization’s leading concerns when it comes to strengthening the dairy industry. We have supported several legislative efforts in Congress to repeal current standards and give school districts the flexibility to offer whole milk and flavored whole milk if they so choose.”

Eby highlighted the “significant stake in the impact on farms, allied businesses, jobs and revenue,” he said. “Our state also has an interest in children being able to choose milk they will drink, to actually receive the nutrition, considering they eat one or two meals a day at school.”

Troutman pointed out the volumes of milk being thrown away, a point confirmed by various reports.

“Former Senator Scott Wagner told me I should go along on the garbage truck to schools and see how much milk is thrown away unopened,” said Troutman. “I would want our Governor and Secretaries of Agriculture and Education to go to a school at lunch time and see for themselves how much milk is thrown out. They can ask the students why, and they might be surprised by their answers because kids are brutally honest. Be sure to take the TV cameras along.”

Restoring choice would have positive impacts.

Sebright noted potential shifts in sales from nonfat milk to fuller fat milk would help stimulate overall demand for milk. She said that according to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, 16% of milk produced is exported, and most of that is skim solids, not fat. She said the U.S. dairy industry presently uses 97% of the milk fat produced. More whole milk sales in Pennsylvania would mean more demand for Pennsylvania milk.

On the other side of that equation, in a milk pricing system that can be inequitable, lack price-discovery and transparency, Eby noted: “When milk fat is treated as a byproduct, it can be undervalued as a component. If school children had the choice of whole milk, future generations of milk drinkers would not be lost, and new market and processing opportunities could result for dairy farms right here in Pennsylvania.”

Eby also reminded senators that fresh whole milk is the most locally-produced product in the dairy sector, and it is the class that brings a higher value to farmers in their blend price.

“The overall despair that I am seeing among dairy farmers, is the feeling they’ve got nowhere to turn legislatively or through their cooperatives for any hope of speaking up on their behalf. Being heard on an issue as simple as whole milk choice in schools — and seeing progress on this issue — would give a lot of dairy farmers hope,” he said.

Speaking for Farm Bureau, Ebert gave details about Pennsylvania’s dairy processing infrastructure, pricing mechanisms and proximity to population. “The bottom line is our dairy industry has relied heavily on fresh milk consumption. While our farm families are accustomed to market forces, and are adapting their small businesses to these changing conditions, an increase in fresh milk consumption would be an immediate boost,” said Ebert. “Our organization believes that giving schools the ability to offer whole and 2% milk could lead to a new generation appreciating the taste and nutritional benefits of milk.”

Better health, more revenue, but where’s Dept. of Agriculture?

Troutman noted that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is “out of touch with dairy.” Several Senators also remarked during the proceedings that the Department was absent from testifying or taking a stand on this issue.

Referring to the Pennsylvania Farm Bill, Troutman said: “$400,000 in grants are given by the Department to modernize dairy farms, but these farmers, technically, could get a termination letter at any time from their processor… They give $400,000 in grants for farm to school education, but dairy is not even mentioned because milk is already in the lunch – but it’s not whole milk that the kids like and need,” he said.

Troutman said further that, “Putting whole milk as a drink choice back in schools would cost the state’s taxpayers a lot less money than other things we do. The benefits of whole milk sales would be huge — better health, more revenue — and we could save our Pennsylvania dairy farms. It’s a win-win.”

Chairman Scavello agreed. “We grew up drinking whole milk, and I think we did okay,” he said.

School nurse gives ‘striking’ data

Speaking of the health aspects, Christine Ebersole RN, BSN, CSN, a school nurse in the Williamsburg School District, with 24 years previously working in a hospital. She also mentioned in her testimony the amount of milk she sees thrown away in the cafeteria.

“In 2008, the Federal Government began prohibiting public schools from serving whole milk to students, presumably to decrease obesity in children. Whole milk has 3.25 % milk fat that’s 97% fat free,” said Ebersole.

She explained that each year school nurses are required to record height and weights on students.

“These are called BMI’s or Body Mass Index which measures body fat based on height and weight. A BMI of 85- 95 % is considered overweight and 95-100% is obese. I thought it would be interesting to compare screenings when whole milk was served in schools with the recent screening where students have been served skim, 1% and 1.5% flavored milk through out their years in school. Our graduating seniors would have been served reduced fat milk during their entire school experience.”

Calling the results “striking,” Ebersole said: “The overweight and obese categories for students in grades 7-12 in 2007-2008 school year was 39% with 60% in the proper BMI scale. In the year 2020-2021, after being served reduced fat milk during school hours, the overweight and obese categories were increased to 52% while the proper range was decreased to 46%. That is a 13% increase over the past 13 years! While one cannot assume that the low fat milk alternatives are the only determining factors, they certainly did not have the intended outcome of reducing obesity in school age children.”

Ebersole suggested that in addition to putting the choice of whole milk back in schools, senators could look at bringing back the afternoon “milk break.”

“The miniscule fat content (in whole milk) is more than offset by the fact that students will actually drink their whole milk instead of sugary drinks with empty calories,” said Ebersole.
On the ‘milk break’ suggestion, she explained that many students need an energy boost in the afternoon.

“This would help with meeting their nutritional needs as well as giving then the energy needed to complete their school work,” she explained. “Many junior and senior high school students participate in after school activities, practices and sporting events. The milk would be a nutrient rich drink, that contains 9 essential nutrients to strengthen their mind and bodies.”

(Author’s note, as a testifier, myself, I pointed out that a continued rise in overweight and diabetes among children and teens was acknowledged by experts and U.S. Senators in 2019 during a U.S. Senate Ag Committee Childhood Nutrition hearing in Washington.)

In-school foodservice insights shared

Krista Byler, food service director for Union City Area School District in northwest Pennsylvania deviated from her written testimony to address questions raised by senators about the challenges facing school foodservice directors in getting whole milk to ‘fit’ in their federally-regulated lunch tray, not to mention extreme fat restrictions for a la carte beverages.

She said education is needed for school foodservice directors to understand the benefits of milkfat and the impact current policies have on children and farms. The other area to look at will be pricing, she said. Right now, milk is not seen as a priority by most foodservice directors when it comes to using tight budgets to get meals on the tray.

“Food service directors have been conditioned to think in the past 10 to 12 years that anything but skim milk and 1% milk has any place in the schools,” said Byler. “A lot of our directors are still behind on the science. They truly believe that the fat is too much for our students. They’re still on the bandwagon that this is going to solve the obesity epidemic.”

Byler is starting to see some movement from her peers seeing the milkfat avoidance as outdated information.

Sebright also highlighted the multi-faceted issues, having spent her early career working with school foodservice directors. “If there is a way that we can help those school foodservice directors balance that tray, balance their budget and still include that fuller fat milk that is so critical to their kids needs, that would be amazing,” she said.

One way to do that is to make milk a standalone component of the school lunch, like it used to be, so it’s not part of the meal calculation, said Byler. She went over the results of her milk choice trial.

School trial is an eye-opener

Senators were impressed by the school milk choice trial, so much so that one key action they discussed was for the state to support schools that want to set up a similar trial in every county. This step would create widespread awareness and gather statewide consumption, waste and student response data at the same time.

Byler said the Union City trial’s actual milk data showed 52% more students chose milk as part of their school lunch, and at the same time, the volume of milk thrown away by students was reduced by 95%.

“The students had no idea we were doing the trial, and they had no idea we were restricted from giving them a choice,” said Byler, noting they were “very vocal” when the trial ended, and the 2% and whole milk options were removed from school coolers.

In post-trial student surveys, 64% reported choosing milk more often. On waste, 60% of students said they had thrown milk away before the trial, but after the trial, only 30% of students said they had thrown milk away.

Over half the students said the trial changed their a la carte beverage purchase habits and another 26% of students said the milk choice may have changed their purchase habits. That’s more than 75% impact.

A whopping 85% of the students said they drink whole milk at home.

Statewide trials would help with the education component identified by Byler in her testimony.

“One of the stumbling points we have is getting the schools on board, getting the foodservice directors on board, getting the management companies to come on board and say ‘yes, this is a win-win. This benefits our students. This benefits our Pennsylvania dairy,’” said Byler.

Federal Guidelines drive the school bus

Eby mentioned the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) as the umbrella driving the school bus. The most recent 2020-25 DGA cycle was covered extensively in Farmshine over the past two years, drawing tens of thousands of comments, questioning why scientific studies on dietary fat were left out of the process.

“After the 2015 DGA cycle, Congress asked the Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to review the process. In 2017, their report cited the need for enhanced transparency and stronger scientific rigor,” said Eby.

Despite protests by experts, the 2020-25 DGA committee again ignored large bodies of scientific literature on the positive role of saturated fats, especially milk fat, in a healthy diet.

“Dairy checkoff promotions that farmers must pay into are affected by these guidelines that the industry heartily applauds when they are released,” said Eby. “Checkoff funding of fat-free and low-fat promotion includes innovations that are now blending low-fat milk with almond beverage and ultrafiltration that allows milk solids to move anywhere and be reconstituted in beverages — Coca Cola-style. Meanwhile, the low-fat milk rules at schools turn children away from milk to other drinks in a beverage market dominated by huge global companies. These drinks do not come close to providing the nutrition of whole milk.”

As important to parents as to dairy farmers

Sebright hit the nail on the head when she said: “I think the issue related to whole milk in schools is as important to parents as it is to dairy farmers because really, it’s all about taste.”

In fact, she said, “whole milk builds lifelong consumers.”

Mentioning research about the benefits of whole milk, Sebright noted that there are “nutrients in whole milk that are not found in skim and non-fat that are important for brain development.”

Her testimony also included the benefits of milk, in general, and how critical it is to make sure the children get that nutrition. Sebright talked about her youngest son, who never liked milk in school. She would pay for the milk, and he would throw it away. He did a 7th grade science project, a chocolate milk taste test.

“He had 27 friends blindly taste the two milks, and all of them chose the whole chocolate milk,” Sebright related. “That’s very telling. A processor would tell you it’s because making a good tasting nonfat chocolate milk is very difficult. The fat in milk adds to the flavor appeal, and when that’s not there, it leaves the cocoa tasting bitter.”

In fact when more fat is removed, more sugar is often added in making chocolate milk to make up for losing the pleasing flavor profile contributed by the fat.

Senator David Argall commented on Sebright’s son’s taste test showing 27 to zero preferred whole over low-fat. “(Businesses) are usually happy with 51-49 or 52-48. But 27 to zero, that’s very strong and really rings out to me,” said Argall.

Speaking for the children

Bringing it back to the kids, Tricia Adams of Hoffman Farms, Potter County testified: “I want to talk to you about the good stuff. The good stuff is a phrase I have heard many times throughout the years from my daughters and countless school children I have had the privilege of seeing on our farm tours,” said Adams, testifying as a dairy producer and school-involved mother of three teenage daughters, making it clear she was speaking for the children.

“The good stuff is what they all refer to as whole milk, which is standardized at 3.25% fat. Every day since 2010, our children have been denied milk choice in school,” said Adams. “Why are we allowing a wholesome natural food product to be attacked and denied and substituting it with more heavily processed drinks?”

As a dairy farmer, she said: “This is personal. I have seen our industry weather many storms over the years. I have seen many farms shut their doors, and I have seen our future generations turning away from milk because of this no fat/low fat push. As a farmer, I want the product I proudly produce every day of my life to be enjoyed and provided in its naturally best version. Whole milk is known as nature’s most perfect food. Why change it, especially for growing kids? Countless generations before consumed whole milk and benefitted.”

She noted that, “Some in the industry say ‘let’s not rock the boat’ because it’s only a couple percentage points. They say, does it really make a difference? Just serve whole milk at home and 1% at school. Turn it the other way, it’s only a couple percentage points, so give them the good stuff.”

Adams cited documents showing the extra percentages of milk fat allow for better digestion, reducing some lactose intolerance issues. The fat slows the lactose (carbohydrate) absorption for a more favorable rate.

She pointed to studies (many cited in pages 6 through 15 of this document) showing how whole milk consumption helps kids maintain a healthy body weight, stressing the value of milk’s many essential vitamins and minerals, some of them being fat-soluble, so the milk fat allows the body to get the benefit.

Vitamin D absorption, in one trial, for example, was triple for kids drinking whole milk vs. low fat and risk of being overweight was reduced by 40%.

“That’s huge today,” said Adams.

Senators get it.

Chairman Scavello (below, left) had set the stage for the hearing, noting in his opening remarks that farming is the Commonwealth’s number one industry and dairy is 37% of Pennsylvania agriculture.

“Pennsylvania has the second largest number of dairy farms in the nation, only second to Wisconsin,” he said. “The industry supports approximately 52,000 jobs and contributes $14.7 billion to the state’s economy. Given these facts, it is essential that we continue to follow and review important decisions that are made that can have an impact on such an important part of our economy, such as the federal prohibition of whole milk in schools.”

Senator David Argall (R-29th, above, right) said this hearing “begins a serious conversation about what the state can do to encourage our federal partners to drop this arbitrary provision. Many of our dairy farmers are really struggling, and part of this… is due to the fact that in 2010, Congress passed legislation putting restrictive regulations on the consumption of whole milk in schools.”

He observed that in the first two years of that action, 1.2 million fewer students drank milk at lunch, “but they still had access to sugary juices and soda, which offer none of the nutritional value that whole milk does. This isn’t just hurting our dairy farmers, it’s teaching a terrible lesson in nutrition to our students.”

Joining the Policy Committee by zoom (above) was Senator Scott Martin (R-31st), representing Lancaster County. He chairs the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee and noted the timeliness of this public hearing topic.

“From an educational standpoint…as a large consumer of milk when I was growing up, it’s amazing from a policy perspective that we ended up where we are trying to teach our kids good habits to what it is now the selection of things that I would put in the category of not so healthy and not having those benefits. What we are teaching and providing, combined with the devastating impact on our family farms? I truly hope we can make inroads in getting the federal prohibition removed,” said Chairman Martin.

“It’s heartbreaking to see as dairy farmers struggle, they are out there educating the public on the nutritional value (of whole milk). You can even see homemade signs or bales of hay wrapped in plastic, talking about the importance of the nutritional value of whole milk,” Martin observed.

Grassroots response is all volunteer

In his brief testimony, retired agribusinessman Bernie Morrissey talked about the start of that ‘homemade’ grassroots campaign, when Berks County farmer Nelson Troutman painted his first wrapped round bale: Drink Whole Milk 97% Fat Free.

“That was the start of this grassroots dairy committee and it’s been going ever since,” said Morrissey about several of the volunteers testifying on panels during the hearing. “The major point is choice for our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren… and this area of milk marketing where our farmers have been mistreated, financially. Even on the news yesterday was about the milk prices going up… but not at the farm. The tank truck backs up to their farm, takes their milk. They are business people, just like I am. The truck backs up, takes the milk out of the bulk tank, and they don’t know what they’re going to be paid for it.”

“People don’t know the facts about milk,” said Troutman as he talked about putting that first round bale in the pasture in frustration after a Pa. Milk Marketing Board meeting, painting over 50 of them to put on other farms and businesses, how other farmers painted their own and even got artists to paint some, and how Morrissey worked with other businesses to get banners and signs printed.

“It’s not just this state,” said Troutman, “it’s all over, and New York is one of the biggest. Then the 97 Milk education effort got going all by volunteers and donations.

Testifying from the 97 Milk education effort and in her work with dairy farmers through R&J Dairy Consulting, not to mention as a mother with young children, Jackie Behr gave a quick summary of the grassroots whole milk education efforts online at 97milk.com and through the social media platforms. She volunteers in that effort.

“Consumers are savvy. They want to learn. I can’t begin to share all of the countless responses we have received from people saying, ‘I’m going to switch to whole milk,’” said Behr. “Since removing the option of whole milk from schools, we have lost a generation of milk drinkers.”

Attached with her testimony were 10 reasons for children to have whole milk.

“Yes, of course I give my kids whole milk,” said Behr. “I have done the taste test with my kids. I gave them skim, 1%, and they all have looked at me and said: ‘what is this?’ My kids taste the difference and I want to know how many other kids taste the difference as well. As a mother, I know if we’re going to give something healthy, they need to like it. Our dairy farms are struggling. I see it every day in my business. Something has got to change or we will keep losing our dairy farms in Pennsylvania.”

A healthy child should be our number one priority

It is really the children who were front and center in this hearing. The testimony of 11 people opened eyes and impressed senators, who confirmed how valuable it was to understand the federal issue in order to begin navigating it at the state level.

“We have a responsibility to help our children be the best they can be and allow them to perform to their highest potential. We should want no kid to be hungry,” Adams testified. “Milk fat allows a body naturally to be satiated, so children can concentrate in school. If a hungry, growing child does not get that feeling, they will turn to sugary snacks or drinks to fill the void. For some kids, the school lunch is the only real meal they get in a day. Some, our daughters included, get two meals at school.”

Whole milk satisfies, she added: “A healthy child should be our number one priority, please let us in Pennsylvania lead by example.”

Some of the members of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee testified in person at the state capitol (l-r) Mike Eby, Sherry Bunting, Bernie Morrissey, Jackie Behr, Nelson Troutman, and some testified by zoom, Krista Byler, Tricia Adams and Christine Ebersole

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