NYC Mayor leaves chocolate milk on school menu, ‘for now’

FARMSHINE EDITOR’S NOTE:  There is nothing simple about school milk today. Now there are three federal bills pending. One would legalize the options of whole and 2% flavored and unflavored milk in schools, one would restore just the 1% low-fat flavored milk option in schools, and now a third bill, a new one, would mandate that all schools offer at least one low-fat (1%) flavored milk option. At the state level in Pennsylvania, there’s also a whole milk in schools bill that recently passed the State House in a near-unanimous vote and is being considered by the State Senate as reported last week in Farmshine. Furthermore, a New York State Assemblyman has introduced a bill similar to the PA bill in the NY legislature. This week, however, the spotlight is on New York City schools as Mayor Eric Adams had proposed elimination of all flavored milk options.

Istock Photo (PC Yobro10)

By Sherry Bunting, published in Farmshine, April 22, 2022

NEW YORK CITY — A proposed chocolate milk ban appears to be on hold in New York City schools. The April 17 New York Post reported NYC Mayor Eric Adams has “backed off” on his system-wide chocolate milk ban, while seeking USDA’s blessing to offer non-dairy alternatives.

The article cited a letter from the mayor to USDA, noting Adams will leave the flavored milk option up to the individual NYC schools — “for now.” 

Adams, who publicly follows a ‘mostly vegan’ lifestyle, who launched Vegan-Friday in NYC schools in February, and who sought to ban flavored milk in schools during his previous tenure as Brooklyn borough president, now says he is holding off on the chocolate milk ban and is seeking more input on school food and beverage options, overall.

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) applauded the news in a press release Tuesday (April 19). 

“The USDA school meal standards and the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans both support serving low-fat (1%) flavored milk in schools,” the IDFA statement reads. It also pointed out that flavored milk processed for schools today contains 50% less added sugar and fewer calories than 10 years ago, so it meets Mayor Adams’ plan for school beverages to be under 130 calories.

National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) also issued a statement thanking in particular U.S. Representatives Antonio Delgado (D-NY) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) “for their advocacy in support of continued flexibility for schools to serve children healthy milk and dairy products that benefit their growth and development.”

Mayor Adams’ pause on the flavored milk ban came after nine of New York’s 27 members of the U.S. Congress signed a bipartisan letter in March urging him not to implement the ban. The letter was initiated by U.S. Congressman Antonio Delgado, a New York Democrat who is the prime cosponsor of Pennsylvania Republican Congressman G.T. Thompson’s Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, H.R. 1861. 

In the letter, the lawmakers noted that two-thirds of current school milk sales nationwide are low-fat (1%) flavored milk. In NYC, all flavored milk is currently fat-free. The lawmakers noted that the proposed flavored milk ban would go against the mayor’s stated goals of improving childhood nutrition and health.

“As members representing both rural and urban communities, we are committed to supporting the dairy farmers, producers and agriculture partners across New York, while also ensuring that children in NYC schools have access to critical, life-enhancing nutrients. Unfortunately, for many NYC families, the meals children receive in schools are their only source of many recommended nutrients,” the bipartisan letter stated.

The letter also pointed out that members of Congress from New York and across the country are supporting expanding — not restricting — the access to milk and flavored milk choices in schools. The letter mentioned the bipartisan Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act (H.R. 1861 with 93 cosponsors from 32 states) and the bipartisan School Milk Nutrition Act (H.R. 4635 with 44 cosponsors from 21 states). 

H.R. 1861 would end the federal prohibition of flavored and unflavored whole and 2% milk in schools. H.R. 4635 would simply restore by statute the option of low-fat 1% flavored milk so it can’t be restricted to fat-free by USDA edict.

“Both (bills) expand flavored milk options in school lunchrooms and have received support from members of the New York Congressional delegation on both sides of the aisle. We strongly urge you to continue offering children the choice of flavored milk each and every day in New York City schools,” NY members of Congress conveyed to Mayor Adams in the letter.

New York Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik also introduced the lastest federal school milk bill, H.R. 7070, the Protecting School Milk Choices Act. The ink isn’t even dry on this one, which has three cosponsors from Long Island, western New York State and Iowa. It would require, not simply allow, schools to offer at least one low-fat (1%) flavored milk option.

“A silent crisis is gripping our nation’s schoolchildren. In a typical school year, more than 30 million students of all ages rely on school breakfast and lunch for their daily recommended intake of critical nutrients,” wrote Keith Ayoob in an April 11 New York Daily News editorial. The associate professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx served over 30 years as director of the nutrition clinic for the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center. 

“As a clinician working with mostlylow-income, minority families for more than 30 years, I’ve taken thousands of dietary histories on children. I can tell you that for many, a school meal is by far the healthiest meal they will consume on any given day. For some kids, sadly, these are their only meals,” Ayoob stated.

He reported that more than 60% of children and teens are not meeting their needs for calcium, vitamin D and potassium, which are three of four ‘nutrients of concern,’ and that eliminating flavored milk from NYC school meals would cause childhood nutrition to further deteriorate. 

Yes, children should not eat excess added sugar, wrote Ayoob, but “small amounts can be useful… to drive the consumption of nutrient-rich and under-consumed foods.” He cited flavored milk and yogurt as two examples of how to beneficially “spend the few added sugar calories.”

The Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act of 1946 has long upheld milk’s unique nutritional package, allowing substitution only if it is “nutritionally equivalent to fluid milk and meets nutritional standards established by the Secretary, which shall, among other requirements, include fortification of calcium, protein, vitamin A and vitamin D to levels found in cow’s milk for students who cannot consume fluid milk because of a medical or other special dietary need…” 

In addition, there is a section of this law that prohibits restriction of milk sales in schools. It states: “A school that participates in the school lunch program under this Act shall not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk products by the school (or by a person approved by the school) at any time or any place — (i) on the school premises; or (ii) at any school-sponsored event.”

In its press release thanking parents, physicians, dieticians and members of Congress for speaking up, IDFA cited the results of a Morning Consult survey it had commissioned. 

The survey found 90% of New York City voters with children in public schools and 85% of parents nationwide supported offering the option of low-fat (1%) flavored milk in school meals. This means parents don’t want a ban on flavored milk, and they don’t want their children’s flavored milk choices restricted to fat-free.

As reported in the March 11 Farmshine, this survey also found that 58% of NYC parents and 78% of parents nationwide selected as most nutritious the whole milk and reduced-fat (2%) milk options that are currently prohibited in schools by the federal government, whereas only 24% of NYC parents and 18% of parents nationwide selected the low-fat (1%) and fat-free milk options that are currently allowed in schools. 

In fact, when asked what milk they “selected” as “most nutritious for them and their families,” the top pick of parents was whole milk at 34% of NYC parents and 43% nationwide; followed by reduced-fat (2%) milk at 24% and 35%; low-fat (1%) milk at 12% and 11%; and fat-free milk at 12% and 7%.

Among NYC parents, 9% selected ‘other,’ and 9% were unsure or had no opinion. Among parents, nationwide, 3% selected ‘other,’ and 1% were unsure or had no opinion.

Why do parental choices matter? Because children consume two out of three meals a day at school for a majority of the year.

How did we get here?

The Congress under a Democrat majority in 2010 passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that called for aligning government feeding programs, like school lunch, even more closely to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs). 

Then, in 2012, the Obama-Vilsack USDA promulgated rules to outright ban whole and 2% reduced-fat unflavored and flavored milk as well as 1% low-fat flavored milk as “competing beverages” across all schools. USDA documents note that this move was based on information from an industry school wellness program that had touted three-a-day fat-free and low-fat dairy, reporting those schools that had voluntarily restricted the higher fat milk options were doing better in meeting the constraints of the Dietary Guidelines. 

Never mind the fact that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory committees admit their espoused fat-restrictive dietary patterns leave all age groups deficient in key nutrients of concern. 

During the first school year of the USDA whole and 2% milk prohibition (2012-13), which also saw all flavored milk restricted to fat-free status, USDA’s own study showed student selection of milk declined by 24%, and milk waste in schools increased 22% across two categories. That’s a double-whammy.

In 2017, the Trump-Perdue USDA provided regulatory flexibility to schools, allowing them to offer low-fat 1% flavored milk through a waiver process. This flexibility was reversed in 2021 by a court decision noting USDA erred by not providing adequate public comment before providing the new flexibilities on milk, sodium and whole grains. 

With the Coronavirus pandemic emerging in 2020, closing schools and creating supply chain challenges, USDA had implemented emergency flexibilities for school offerings.

Recently, the Biden-Vilsack USDA announced a transitional final rule for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years. In this rule, USDA recognized that post-pandemic schools “need more time to prepare” to meet the DGAs on fat (milk), sodium and whole grains. 

According to USDA, the Department is reviewing thousands of stakeholder comments received in March 2022 and expects to release updated child nutrition program standards in July 2022, which would then become effective for the 2024-25 school year and beyond.

USDA also announced on Friday (April 15) the opening of the next 5-year Dietary Guidelines cycle with a brief 30-day public comment period ending May 16 to weigh-in on proposed scientific questions that will guide the entire 2025-30 DGA process. Stay tuned.

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