NY launches state bills to put whole milk option back in schools, joins PA in tackling federal prohibition

‘Let’s get this done’All urged to contact New York Governor and state legislators to ‘put whole milk back in schools’

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, May 6, 2022

SHARON SPRINGS, N.Y. — It was a rainy, dreary Monday (May 2), but dairy nutrition advocacy was bright and sunny in the feed room at Ridgedale Farm. The Conard family hosted a press conference supporting New York State legislation to bring whole and 2% milk back to schools.

Patterned after the Pennsylvania bill that has already passed the state House and is expected to be voted on in the Senate this month, the New York bill would support schools in their desire to offer more milk options, including whole and 2% milk produced on New York farms. The bill includes provisions for the Commissioner of Education to notify school superintendents about the flexibility as well as for the State Attorney General to file civil suits on behalf of schools if the federal government withholds other-than-milk funding.

While some media outlets continue to point to the superiority of federal regulations, there is a groundswell of state lawmakers saying “enough is enough” when it comes to the children and the farmers being victims of regs based on false narratives that push young people away from the very nutrition they need, and the very nutrients the Dietary Guidelines committee admitted their government-sanctioned dietary patterns are not providing.

The movement to have state legislatures get involved is not – as some would say – ‘political theater.’ No, this is the reality of where ‘we the people’ get a voice in the very sustenance of farms, food, and future generations. 

In Pennsylvania, it began with U.S. Congressman G.T. Thompson (Dist. 15) with H.R. 1861 as well as State Rep. John Lawrence (Dist. 13) with HB 2397. In New York State, it began with Congressman Antonio Delgado (Dist. 19) a prime cosponsor of H.R. 1861 and Assemblyman Chris Tague (Dist. 102) introducing A9990 with 25 cosponsors. Within a week of Tague’s bill, State Senator George Borrello (Dist. 57) sponsored S8999 with cosponsor Peter Oberacker (Dist. 51).

The New York legislation has been referred to each chamber’s Education Committee. Tague and Borrello are Ranking Members of each chamber’s Agriculture Committee.

Tague and Borrello were joined Monday by other supporting lawmakers, government officials, nutrition and education experts, dairy farmers, FFA members, school superintendents, town mayors, school principals, discussing why it is so important and urging a public groundswell to contact all NYS lawmakers and the Governor’s office in support.

“We are going to get whole milk back in schools. We’re dispelling the myths propagated by many over the years,” said Tague.

“I ask every one of you to spread the word — to your friends, to your family, to your neighbors, even your enemies. Ask them to join us. Call, email and text every single member of the New York State legislature. Tell them: ‘Put whole milk back in our schools!” he exclaimed.

“Then call Governor Hochul and tell Kathy we want whole milk back in our schools,” Tague explained that the bill must go through committee, then to the floor, then get voted on, and then it would go to the Governor.

“Government and misinformed people need to stop biting the hand that feeds them,” he added. “We cannot live without good nutritious foods. No farms, no food. How does a young person today make a go at it? Farmers are not only ‘price takers,’ they take everything else that comes at them. There’s never anybody that stands up for them. That ends today. We’re here to stand up for you.”

Senator Borrello reflected on the problem, which he said is “based on false narratives. A long time ago, they convinced us that taking skimmed milk and pouring it on high sugar, no fat, breakfast cereal was somehow a good breakfast choice for kids, and they’ve taken whole milk out of our schools. The result has been more waste, it ends up in the garbage. And what have we told our kids to do? It’s okay to have energy drinks and other things that just aren’t good for your health. We’ve also seen a dramatic rise in obesity rates.”

The data for these dietary patterns just is not there, said Borrello.

“Now we know that having fat in the diet is not only good for kids, it helps with their growth, and the kids that do drink whole milk actually end up with less obesity. The science had changed, but unfortunately, our government has not,” he said. “We should give the children the choice. But most importantly, we should recognize this is a good choice. That’s why this is an important bill. Most people don’t understand, that even whole milk is 97% fat free.”

Borrello observed these current dietary rules have further impact, that they are “the beginning of the push to take us away from products like milk, that want to push us toward things like almond beverage, which is not milk, and other things. That’s the real agenda here. Let’s understand that whole milk is nutritious. It feeds your brain. It feeds your body. It is probably one of the best, most nutritious drinks that you can have. But instead of serving that, they want to push these artificially created products onto our children and tell them that’s okay,” he said.

“We need to give them this (whole milk) choice because it is the right thing to do and because it is also good for agriculture, the most important and largest industry in New York State. People forget that. We are here today from all points of the state standing united to say this is the right time to bring back whole milk into our schools,” Borrello stressed.

Nutrition expert agreed

Toby Amidor, registered dietitian, nutrition expert, food safety consultant, instructor, speaker and author in New York City, drove out from Brooklyn to give her thoughts on the bill and whole milk misconceptions.

She confirmed the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans “pinpoint three under-consumed nutrients that are found in milk, that people of all ages, including school age children, adolescent children, even toddlers, they don’t get enough of,” said Amidor.

“Those nutrients are calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Milk is a vehicle that you can get all of this nourishment into children in order to grow and thrive like we want them to. It’s an important thing to give them a choice. Choose (the milk) you want,” she explained.

Amidor was joined by various school system superintendents noting the key concern of student access to nutrition.

“School is where many children get their nourishment. So that’s where you want to give them these choices,” said Amidor. “It’s okay to have the fat in milk… it’s a nourishing drink, the fat increases the palatability of that nourishment – more power to it!”

School officials were blunt

“We have a large food service system and are highly focused on farm-to-school initiatives. Milk is one of those,” said Anita Murphy, Capitol Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) superintendent, representing 24 districts and 80,000 schoolchildren across four NYS counties.

“On a personal level, I don’t drink skim milk. If that’s the only thing there, I pass,” said Murphy. “I think that’s what happens with our children. If you walk into our cafeterias, what you will see is kids passing on milk. A lot of these kids eat two meals a day at school, and that’s it. That’s what they get, so if we don’t give them those things that they need and that they want that are good for them, we are making a mistake. We are willing to lend any support you need to get this done.”

Representing 22 school districts and more than 30,000 students, Dr. Gladys Kruse, Questar III BOCES district superintendent concurred. She thanked the lawmakers for their efforts.

“We need more children to drink milk to get the nutrition they need. We know some of our students get two of their meals a day at our schools. When we hear students throwing away their lunch or their milk, or we hear of farmers having to dump the milk they cannot sell, it is time to reevaluate and reconsider the options and the policies. This legislation is a welcome step in expanding the availability and consumption of milk locally and across the state,” said Dr. Kruse.

Thanking Tague for his leadership, Kruse stated the bill would “provide the flexibility to have more milk options available to our students. This includes whole milk and 2% milk produced here and across the state. From our first beverage as a child to a staple in our daily school lunches, milk is fuel of our young people’s growth and development.”

From the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District, superintendent Dr. Tim Mundell talked about partnership and collaboration, calling the day’s event a great example of that.

“The passage of this bill would help us bring local whole milk to our students, viable nutrition and real value,” said Mundell noting the need for flexibility. “Students get two meals a day from us. Many of our students live in very isolated and rural areas and access to nutritional foods, like whole milk… for their health and well-being, it’s scarce, and it’s scary.”

“When we put kids at the center of all of our decisions and all of our advocacy, great things happen, and the decisions are easy. This (should be) a very easy decision,” he said.

Mundell also observed the losses in enrollments and economic opportunity throughout rural regions of the state. He said FFA leadership learning is so important, and when students are able to see agriculture economically thriving, it gets their minds thinking about life and options after high school.

“Passage of this bill will enhance the capacity of all rural areas in New York State to re-engage in economic development. We are on board for collaboration in making this economic activity happen,” he said.

From the dairy farmer perspective, Ray Dykeman of Dykeman and Sons, Fultonville admitted that farmers prefer being in the field or with the cows and doing the work producing nutritious food, but, he stressed that this advocacy is vital for the future.

“This bill is extremely important for the kids in school (and) for the dairy farmers in the area,” said Dykeman with appreciation to the Conard family and their “beautiful cows” as hosts.

He challenged people to compare whole milk’s label to most other beverage options, “if you can even pronounce half of the ingredients that were made in a laboratory. We were using milk products as many as 10,000 years ago. Why not trust the cow, probably one of the most perfect animals in the world?”

Dykeman also thanked the lawmakers for taking on this issue to bring whole milk back to schools at a time when dairy farms are challenged. “This legislation will support our hard working dairy farm family businesses and get more milk into New York schools. This is very encouraging. Agriculture is our number one industry, and milk is our number one commodity.”

Among the panel of speakers, the New York Farm Bureau and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association (NEDPA), based in Geneseo, were represented. Behind the scenes and joined by 30 other farmers in the Ridgedale feed room were grassroots whole milk promoters Duane Spaulding and Ann Diefendorf. They brought the 97 Milk messages and signage used prominently throughout the event.

In fact, Tague thanked the grassroots efforts of farmers, of 97 Milk, and even mentioned Milk Baleboard originator Nelson Troutman in his opening remarks.

For Farm Bureau, Todd Heyn noted their “long advocacy for the return of whole milk to schools, giving districts the ability to provide this healthy and nutritious dairy product to school kids.”

Heyn reported the bill would “provide additional markets for whole milk, a Class I dairy product that earns dairy farmers a higher price.” 

Heyn said this would support New York dairy farmers and raise awareness to find a workable solution at the national level, explaining that Farm Bureau is formally asking USDA to “follow the science around nutrition and revise the school nutrition guidelines for dairy products in the school lunch programs.”

The energy was really high by the time NEDPA executive director Tonya Van Slyke got to the podium. She talked about dairy farmers are part of a global economy but take pride in what they do locally… especially in schools.

While Tague and Borrello held the sign taken from images at 97milk.com touting all the benefits of whole milk, Van Slyke — a mother and dairy farmer — recalled walking intop the school cafeteria and being asked by the director: “’Dairy farmer, how did you let this happen? Why are they taking the healthy fat away from my babies?’ Nutrition helps them have good brain power.”

As she turned to Tague and thanked him and his colleagues, Van Slyke said: “Let’s get this done,” and the room erupted in echoes and applause.

Tague, a former dairy farmer himself, noted he had actually milked a famous cow in the very barn where the event was held Monday. He worked years ago for Wayne Conard and his father Willis. He made a direct appeal to the farmers, encouraging farmers everywhere to get into the game.

“We have a lot of work to do. This press conference today is just the beginning… the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Sometimes as farmers, we are too proud and too busy to let our voices be heard,” he said. “But folks, it ends today. We’ve got to get up and scream it. We’ve got to make them hear us that enough is enough. 

“Let’s leave here today with one thing in mind: Whole Milk back in our schools!”

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