I am thankful for the folks who push for whole milk choice

And I am thankful, perhaps most of all, for the strong and stubborn big heart of retired agribusinessman and dairy advocate Bernie Morrissey.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine Editorial, April 15, 2022

Among the dairy bills moving in the Pennsylvania House and Senate, one rising to the top is the Whole Milk for Pennsylvania Schools Act

What appears to be a fast rise has really been the product of a long and exhausting process for those who have worked on and reported on the issue of school milk and school meals over the past 10 to 15 years.

Six years ago, the issue began heating up, and U.S. Congressman G.T. Thompson (R-15th) introduced his Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act for the first time. Two legislative sessions later, that bill, H.R. 1861, still awaits action by the House Committee on Education and Labor, having 93 cosponsors from 32 states as of April 13.

A little over three years ago, a grassroots whole milk education movement was launched by volunteers and donations after Berks County dairy farmer Nelson Troutman painted a round bale, which led to the formation of the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk LLC.

The painstaking process of working to pry federal bureacrats’ hands off the allowable school milk offerings for children has been ongoing and exhausting.

Now there is the Pennsylvania State bill, HB 2397 Whole Milk for Pennsylvania Schools, authored by State Representative John Lawrence, introduced with 36 cosponsors on March 17 and passed by the State House on April 13.

The progress would not be happening without volunteers — especially the tireless efforts of Bernie Morrissey. At 85, he doesn’t have to be doing any of this. He has shown that he cares about the future for dairy farmers in Pennsylvania, and as a grandfather and great-grandfather, he cares about school milk choices. He has continually worked to get the word out about the whole milk prohibition issue.

USDA’s own pre- and post-prohibition survey showed the significant decrease in students selecting milk and the increased throwing away of milk served — in just the very first year (2012) of the complete restriction of milk choices to be only fat-free or 1% low-fat. More recent studies show it has only gotten worse.

Dairy farmers have lost a generation of milk drinkers, and Class I fluid milk sales have declined even more dramatically since the federal ban.

In the pages of Farmshine, we’ve brought you the news each step of the way. The Dietary Guidelines debacle has been covered for over 10 years. The Congressional bills have been covered. The findings of investigative science journalist Nina Teicholz have been covered, and so much more.

Since Dec. 2018, Farmshine has covered the emerging story of Nelson’s painted round bale, how it got noticed and how that led to questions from neighbors, how more bales were painted, how Bernie took it to another level making banners and yard signs, paying to print some up and distributing them and asking other agribusiness leaders to do the same, and how folks in other states are making an impact also in the movement to get the message out of the pasture and onto buildings and by roads everywhere they can.

We’ve reported on Bernie’s efforts to do political fundraisers at the grassroots level — giving farmers and agribusiness leaders opportunities to join him in supporting lawmakers who care about these issues.

We’ve reported on the major ‘Bring Whole Milk Back to School’ petition drives (30,000 strong), visits with lawmakers, the progress of the 97 Milk education effort, and so forth.

All along the way, there have been fence-straddling skeptics parsing their words. Just one example came recently after Nelson received the Pennsylvania Dairy Innovator Award during the Dairy Summit in February. That evening, one state official said to me that he “never had a problem” with the whole milk signs, but he was quick to add that he didn’t like the way the painted bales and signs only promoted whole milk, when all milk should be promoted.

Yes, all milk should be promoted, but let’s face facts here. For the past 10 to 15 years, the mandatory dairy checkoff promotion programs have not promoted whole milk. They have repeatedly used the terminology “fat-free and low-fat milk” — in lockstep with USDA bureaucrats. They even promoted the launch of blended products where real milk and plant-based fakes were combined to make what was called a “purely perfect blend.” 

“Three-a-day low-fat and fat-free” has been the mantra. 

Some dairy princesses have even confessed being afraid to tout whole milk, others have pushed the boundaries. Some have picked up the 97 Milk vehicle magnets for their personal vehicles while towing-the-line on the fat-free / low-fat wording in their “official” capacity as princesses. 

Let’s face it, the industry has used farmers’ own mandatorily-paid checkoff funds to drill USDA’s low-fat and fat-free milk message into the minds of consumers.

Someone had to start thinking outside the box if a solution to this issue was ever going to get outside the box.

Volunteers have now taken up the slack to promote whole milk, and they are moving the needle. In fact, the whole milk movement is so successful even Danone’s new fake brand – NextMilk — is trying to capitalize by using whole milk’s signature red and white cartons and placing “whole fat” above the brand name. What does that tell us?

Now, as the Whole Milk in Schools bill gains ground in the state of Pennsylvania, we see some who are trying to pour cold water on the passion and progress by suggesting that the state bill, which uses the PA Preferred framework to assert state’s rights, could lead to retaliation by other states to try harming demand for Pennsylvania-produced milk.

This is intimidation. Bullying. We see the same argument every time efforts are made to close loopholes that keep the state-mandated Pennsylvania over-order premium from getting to Pennsylvania dairy farms as the law intended. We hear that Pennsylvania milk will be discriminated against if co-ops and processors can’t continue dipping into the premium cookie jar. 

Now, it appears the same intimidation angle is being applied to HB 2397, which defines the option of whole milk in schools as pertaining to milk that is paid for with Pennsylvania or local funds and produced by cows milked on Pennsylvania farms. The bill has no choice but to use the PA Preferred framework because it is defining a role for state action on a federal prohibition.

Remember the June 2021 Pa. Senate Majority Policy Committee hearing on ending the federal prohibition of whole milk in schools? At the end of that hearing, State Senators in attendance were interested in doing statewide school milk trials like the one done temporarily at two school districts in Pennsylvania two years ago “under the radar.” (In one trial offering all fat levels of milk, whole milk was preferred by students 3 to 1; student selection of milk increased 52% and the amount of discarded ‘served’ milk declined by 95%!)

Key lawmakers began to show stronger interest in finding a way to give schools this option and have them collect data about student consumption and not get penalized by USDA and the Dept. of Education in the process. HB 2397 does that!

A major reason why interest is surging for this bill is because more people are coming to the realization that this prohibition exists. Prior to the 97 Milk education effort, most parents, citizens, even lawmakers, did not realize whole milk is outright banned in schools, even banned as an a la carte beverage! That goes for 2% reduced fat milk also, by the way. 

HB 2397 is about choice. There is no mandate here. None, whatsoever. Just freedom for students to make a healthful choice that they are presently denied.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a state’s interest on two critical fronts: 1) Dairy farming is essential to our economy and 2) The health of our children and freedom of choice are of the utmost importance. Students receive two out of three meals at school during a majority of the year.

Shouldn’t states and schools and parents decide milk choices instead of federal bureaucrats? Shouldn’t children get to choose the best milk our farmers produce if that’s what they’ll drink and love and benefit from? Why should they be forced to choose only the industry’s leftover skim?

Bottom line, these are times to be bold and brave.

These bills are for the children and for the farmers.

As a mother and grandmother, and dairy enthusiast, I am thankful for all who are working to move these bills forward. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with so many people who care about this issue. I am thankful for the work of 97 Milk and the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee. I am thankful for the support of the Pa. Farm Bureau, Pa. Dairymen’s Association, Pa. Farmers Union, and other organizations supporting the Whole Milk in Pennsylvania Schools Act.

I am thankful for the agribusiness leaders making contributions to help farmers and other whole milk education volunteers get the message and milk facts out there. I am thankful for the 30,000 people who signed online and mailed in petitions on this issue two and three years ago. 

I am thankful for Pennsylvania lawmakers who are being bold and leading — bringing their colleagues along in a bipartisan way so that more states can be encouraged to do the same.

I am thankful for all who are standing up for our dairy farmers and our children. 

And I am thankful, perhaps most of all, for the strong and stubborn big heart of retired agribusinessman and dairy advocate Bernie Morrissey. He continually looks for every possible avenue to help dairy farmers be at the table to speak up about the policies that affect their futures. He knows what it means to them, and to children, to someday — hopefully soon — have the choice of whole milk in schools.

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