Despite frustrations, G.T. is not giving up on ending federal prohibition of whole milk in schools

After his whole milk in schools amendment failed on a committee-level party-line vote in August, G.T. Thompson said he’s not giving up, but that a change in leadership is needed to get this done. “Current leadership has an anti-kid, anti-dairy bias. This has become all politics with no logic,” he said.
Bills that would end federal prohibition of whole milk in schools are before the United States Congress and in the Pennsylvania and New York state legislatures. In the U.S. House there are 95 cosponsors. In the Pennsylvania House, it was passed almost unanimously, but the PA Senate refuses to run it because of lunch money scare tactics. Proponents of the various whole milk bills say Democrat party leaders oppose this common sense measure. Some Democrat lawmakers have signed on along with the Republicans as cosponsors; however, as the fight to include it as an amendment in childhood nutrition reauthorization proved — the Democratic leadership has another agenda for America’s foods and beverages and has therefore halted any movement of this measure to end federal prohibition of whole milk in schools and in daycares and in WIC. This bill is simply about allowing a choice that would be healthy for America’s children and rural economy. The evidence is overwhelming that the Dietary Guidelines and Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act got it wrong. Our children and farmers are paying the price for this mistake. Those in charge don’t seem to care about science, freedom of choice, nor petitions signed by tens of thousands of people.

By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, August 5, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An attempt by Congressman Glenn “G.T.” Thompson (R-Pa.) to get his Whole Milk for Healthy Kids bill attached as part of an amendment to the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization package failed last week despite the bill having nearly 100 cosponsors, including both Republicans and Democrats.

Joining him in introducing the amendment during the Committee’s markup of the Democrat’s child nutrition reauthorization were Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Fred Keller (R-Pa.) and Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho).

“Unfortunately, the Democrats folded on us, and the amendment was defeated,” said Thompson in a Farmshine phone interview Tuesday (Aug. 2). The amendment also included language that would have allowed whole milk for mothers and children over age 2 enrolled in the WIC program.

“The current leadership has an anti-kid, anti-dairy bias, that’s my interpretation,” Thompson said. “Our whole milk provisions are good for youth and their physical and cognitive well-being. It’s also good for rural America.”

Thompson said his effort as a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor was to include the substance of two bills related to whole milk in the huge reauthorization package. Child nutrition reauthorization is normally a five-year cycle, but it has not been updated in over a decade since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act passed under a Democrat majority in 2010 to double-down on anti-fat policies in all government feeding programs, including schools.

“We wanted moms and children to get access to the best milk, but this has become all politics with no logic,” he said.

The Committee moved the child nutrition package forward last week without the whole milk provisions. That package will now go to the full House for a vote.

Thompson said its fate is uncertain, that it is likely to pass the House, although the margins are tighter there, he explained. 

However, he believes the child nutrition package will be “dead on arrival” in the Senate where it likely will not receive the 60 votes needed to pass.

If that happens, then the task of writing it would begin again in the next legislative session (2023-24).

“Our best hope (of getting the whole milk provisions for schools and WIC) is for Republicans to take back the majority in November,” said Thompson, explaining that he is already working with Ranking Member Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina. “She understands the issue and knows this is one of my top priorities.”

If Republicans gain a House majority in the midterm elections, Foxx is a likely candidate for chair of Education and Workforce, and Thompson would be a senior member of that committee as well as being a likely candidate for chair of the House Agriculture Committee, where he is currently the Ranking Member.

In fact, he said he is “very positive” about being successful getting Whole Milk for Healthy Kids out of committee under Republican leadership and is already working hard to ensure its success out of the full House, pending who is in leadership after the midterms.

Thompson said he is also working on allies in the Senate.

Up until now, it has been the outgoing Senator from Pennsylvania – Pat Toomey – who has “carried the milk” on this issue with companion legislation in the Senate.

“His bill impressed me in how he and his team thought through the issue on fat limits that are imposed on our nutrition professionals in schools,” said Thompson, taking note for future reintroductions of his bill.

On the House side, the Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization originates in the Education and Workforce Committee, but in the Senate the package originates in the Agriculture Committee.

Thompson notes that if the Republicans have a majority in the Senate, the current Ranking Member of the Ag Committee, John Boozman of Arkansas, is a likely candidate for chair. Boozman, who previously served in the U.S. House and was a mentor to Thompson. Today, they are the Ag Ranking Members in the two chambers and work closely on issues important to farmers and ranchers.

Back in 2018, when Thompson was asked at a farm meeting why his first introduction of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids did not pass when Republicans did have a majority in the House and Senate in the 2017-18 legislative session, Thompson noted that National Milk Producers Federation, at that particular time, supported a more gradual shift to first codify the permission for 1% flavored milk then work up to the whole milk provision. 

When asked the question again after his amendment failed, he reflected, noting that in the 2017-18 legislative session, the school milk issue was not well-understood in either chamber of Congress. Then Secretary of Agriculture had made an executive decision to provide flexibility for schools to serve 1% flavored milk instead of limiting it to fat-free. But a bill to codify that change into law has also failed to pass in its three attempts as well. 

It’s not hard to believe that members of Congress do not understand this issue — given the fact that it has taken many years and much grassroots education effort to open even the eyes of parents to the school milk issue. Today, many parents are still unaware that their children over age two at 75% of daycares and 95% of schools (any that receive any federal dollars) do not have the option of drinking whole and 2% milk. Their only milk options by federal prohibition are 1% and fat-free. People just don’t believe it to be true and figure the problem kids have with milk at school is because it’s not chilled enough or comes in a hard to open carton.

In the current effort to get whole milk provisions into the child nutrition reauthorization, however, Thompson confirmed that in addition to the Grassroots PA Dairy Advisory Committee and 97 Milk effort —  “all major dairy organizations were working on this.”

Put simply, said Thompson, if the Republicans gain a majority in November, they are likely to be the ones who will write the next child nutrition package. As the one written recently by the Democrats is headed to the full House and has a tough-go in the Senate, Thompson said even if it does pass, targeted legislative fixes could be achieved in the next legislative session, pending a change in leadership.

“My goal is to work hard. The package that is going to the House now under the Democrats not only does not include whole milk provisions, it continues to micromanage school nutrition professionals who are the ones who know the kids the best and are in the best position to know how to help them eat in a healthy way,” said Thompson.

“Under the current (Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010) and this update — if it passes — kids aren’t eating the lunches. If they are not eating the meals (or drinking the milk), then it is not nutritious,” he added.-30-

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What does USDA’s ‘transitional’ standard on school milk REALLY mean?

USDA announced a ‘transitional standards’ rule on Feb. 4 for milk, whole grains, and sodium for school years 2022-2023 and 2023-2024. In short, the transitional standards are only in place while USDA works with stakeholders to strengthen meal standards through a new rulemaking for the longer term. The proposed rule for the longer-term is expected in fall 2022 and will be based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 — effective school year 2024-2025. A “gradual implementation” plan for the long-term standards will be developed by USDA based on ‘stakeholder input.’ Read the transitional standards rule and comment here. Stay tuned for proposed long-term standards rule and comment period this fall. Even the American Association of School Superintendents (AASA) made a statement this week, believing the long-term standards will be ‘more stringent’ due to the Dietary Guidelines, and that “it is important to acknowledge that healthy meals are only healthy if students eat them.” That goes for the milk also. Milk consumption plummeted and waste skyrocketed since USDA’s 2012 fat-free/low-fat milk rules were set for both ‘served’ milk and competing a la carte offerings.

By Sherry Bunting, Updated (above) since published in Farmshine, Feb. 11, 2022

WASHINGTON — USDA announced ‘transitional’ nutrition standards on Friday, Feb. 4 that put low-fat 1% flavored milk back on the menu next school year, without the cumbersome waiver process. The announcement also delays the planned sodium reductions, helping the cheese side of school lunches. 

National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) came out with hearty applause for the news, thanking Congressmen G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), author of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, and Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), author of the School Milk Nutrition Act, for their leadership on this issue through the years, using words that treat this USDA announcement as though it’s a done-deal, and all is good to go. 

But let’s hold our horses and examine the USDA announcement — described clearly as “transitional” based on schools “needing more time to adjust” post-pandemic. 

USDA stated that future nutrition standards will be proposed in the fall of 2022 as part of the administration’s “Build Back Better with School Meals, input will be gathered, and those will be the standards that go into place beginning with the 2024-25 school year. 

USDA also made it clear that these future long-term standards “will line up with the Dietary Guidelines” and input from schools and industry will be sought in “how to gradually implement them.”

In 2010, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of Congress tied government food and nutrition programs, like school lunch, to the Dietary Guidelines. By 2012, under President Obama’s USDA — with Tom Vilsack at the helm then as now — had banned whole milk as an a la carte offering in the ‘Smart Snacks’ rules. At the same time, the Department required flavored milk to only be offered if it was fat-free and required unflavored milk to be either fat-free or low-fat 1%.

Milk sales plummeted and waste increased.

Then, the Trump-USDA in 2018, under Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue, “rolled back” some of the 2012 USDA standards, delaying the sodium rules and allowing low-fat 1% flavored milk to be offered through a waiver system at the state level. Some states, like Pennsylvania, made blanket waivers available, and many schools began offering low-fat 1% flavored milk over the next few years.

Then, a lawsuit took the Trump-era USDA to court for the rollbacks. The court ruled that the Trump-USDA did not use a proper public comment process before doing the rollbacks. So, beginning with the 2021-22 school year, the low-fat 1% flavored milk was again bumped out of school menus — except where waivers were sometimes granted for pandemic-related supply disruptions as justification for serving a higher fat milk.

Over the past year, USDA Food Nutrition Services has received comments about how to gradually implement nutrition standards to line up with the Dietary Guidelines on sodium, whole grains, and milkfat. Friday’s announcement on ‘transitional standards’ was accompanied by a detailed and lengthy rule that will be implemented July 1, 2022.

“USDA is giving schools time to transition from current, pandemic operations, toward more nutritious meals. In 2022, USDA will continue to prioritize supporting schools as they navigate the challenges of the pandemic and related operational issues,” the announcement said, adding that USDA “is also planning for the future by engaging with school meal stakeholders to establish long-term nutrition standards beginning in school year 2024-2025 that will be achievable.”

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack was quoted in the announcement blaming the pandemic disruptions of the past two years for making schools “unprepared to fully meet those standards at this time” for milk, whole grains and sodium.

“These transitional standards are step one of a longer-term strategy to lean into the school meal programs as a crucial part of improving child health,” said Vilsack.

“Over the coming months and years, USDA will work closely with its school meal partners to develop the next iteration of nutrition requirements. We’ve got to find the right balance between standards that give our kids the best chance at a healthy future based on the latest nutrition science, and ensuring those standards are practical, built to last, and work for everyone,” Vilsack added.

The purpose of the “transitional” standards, according to the USDA announcement, is to “give schools clarity for the coming school years, allowing them to gradually transition from the extraordinary circumstances caused by the pandemic to normal program operations and meal standards that are consistent with the latest nutrition science, as required by law.”

Specifically, the transitional standards beginning with the 2022-23 school year are as follows:

1) Milk: Schools and childcare providers serving participants ages six and older may offer flavored low-fat (1%) milk in addition to nonfat flavored milk and nonfat or low-fat unflavored milk;

2) Whole Grains: At least 80% of the grains served in school lunch and breakfast each week must be whole grain-rich; and

3) Sodium: The weekly sodium limit for school lunch and breakfast will remain at the current level in SY 2022-2023. For school lunch only, there will be a 10% decrease in the limit in SY 2023-2024. (This affects school cheese).

The expressed linkage of long-term USDA nutrition standards to the anti-fat 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines was mentioned throughout the USDA announcement, giving an indication of where the school milk standards are headed, long-term.

That is, unless Congress acts to remove all doubt and make fuller fat milk — whole milk — a legal option for schools in the future.

For a true solution for the long-term, Congressional leadership is needed on the school milk issue.

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