By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 1, 2022
HARRISBURG, Pa. – “Today became whole milk day in Harrisburg, and we hope to see these bills on the Governor’s desk soon,” said Chairman Dan Moul of the Pennsylvania State House Committee on Agriculture and Rural Affairs on Wednesday, March 30 about three pieces of legislation authored by Rep. John Lawrence.
The three dairy bills were part of a six-bill package that passed the Ag Committee and are now headed to the House floor and presumably to the Senate chamber. Several State Senators also attended Wednesday’s press conference in support of the dairy bills.
Attracting the most attention, of course, was House Bill 2397 — The Whole Milk for Pennsylvania Schools Act — which was added to the package most recently with 31 cosponsors right out of the gate.
“Government has its place… but one place we do not need the government is in our daily lives in how we raise and nurture our children. Whole milk is healthy. It is proven. There is no disputing that children need this option in their lives to help grow strong. I am proud as chairman to get these bills out of my committee and on to the House floor with bipartisan support. I’m especially excited about House Bill 2397,” said Moul, joining Reps. Lawrence and Owlett, along with other cosponsors and Farm Bureau President Rick Ebert on the steps of the Atrium at the Capitol.
“House Bill 2397 provides for Pennsylvania schools to buy Pennsylvania milk produced on Pennsylvania farms with Pennsylvania funds to serve to Pennsylvania children. As long as all of that happens within Pennsylvania, that’s really not an issue that is under the purview of the federal government,” said Rep. Lawrence, representing Chester County and parts of Lancaster County.
“There’s also a provision in this bill that if the federal government tries to pull funds (from a school) or tries to interfere, there will be legal action taken against the federal government so we can ensure this opportunity exists,” Lawrence explained.
Stressing that this bill would make the whole milk option voluntary for schools, Lawrence was quick to point out that, “No school would have to do this, but we know there are schools that are very interested in providing whole milk and whole chocolate milk to their students. This bill would allow them to do that.”
Lawrence went on to explain the background of the bill.
“Here in Pennsylvania, we have a robust dairy industry. We have a tradition that’s really second to none. But due to federal regulations that came down during the Obama administration, for over a decade now, school children in Pennsylvania and across the nation have been unable to enjoy whole milk or my favorite, whole chocolate milk, in school,” he said.
“More than just enjoyment, we know it is important. Leading research shows that whole milk is very beneficial for children in developing the mind,” said Lawrence.
Since the change in 2010, “we have really lost a generation of kids who actually know what milk is supposed to taste like, and oh, by the way, they have missed out on the nutrition from it as well,” said Rep. Owlett, the bill’s prime cosponsor. He represents northern tier counties of Tioga and Bradford. “This (federal regulation) took a huge part of Pennsylvania’s fluid milk market away from our farmers. Pennsylvania is a fluid milk market state.”
Owlett cited statistics showing that since 2010, Pennsylvania has lost 2,140 dairy farms, including 230 lost last year, and has slipped from seventh to eighth, being fifth before these school milk regulations were put in place at the federal level.
“When a single dairy farm sells out, the ripple effect of that is felt throughout the entire community,” said Owlett, noting that in his district, “a tremendous number of farms have been selling out in the last 10 years.”
Citing Penn State numbers from extension agent Craig Williams, Owlett noted that since 2012, Tioga County has lost at least 57 dairy farms and Bradford County at least 142.
“Without a doubt this is in part because of this failed policy that came down from D.C.,” said Owlett. “I really love House Bill 2397, and it is a great honor to work with Rep. Lawrence on this. It is a PA issue, alone, that is the beauty of this bill. If a PA school wants to offer PA whole milk with PA dollars… Guess what federal government? We’re going to do it! If you try to stop us, our attorney general is going to sue you on behalf of a school district.”
Owlett and others noted that this bill is how state lawmakers can “stand up for our farmers, our kids and our schools in Pennsylvania.”
“We want to make sure those kids get the nutrition from milk, and that it actually tastes good, instead of throwing it in the trash can,” said Owlett.
Like Lawrence, Owlett noted there are schools in his district that are looking forward to this option and need this protection to exercise that choice.
Lawmakers thanked the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau for their leadership in promoting the bill in Harrisburg. Speaking for PFB, Rick Ebert said HB 2397 will help foster a new generation of kids who like milk again.
“I have been a dairy farmer for 40 years, and we ship to Turner in Penn Hills,” said Ebert. “They put a lot of products into schools. It is nice to see this support from lawmakers to keep our Pennsylvania dairy industry strong and viable.”
When asked how much money the federal government pays in milk reimbursement right now, Lawrence noted that the overall picture of education funds shows the vast majority, 98 to 99%, comes from state and local funds.
While it is true that schools would not get reimbursed for whole milk they buy to offer students, the larger issue is their fear over education funds being pulled for federal mandates because of “disobeying” federal dietary guidelines with the offering of whole milk as a choice.
“As long as schools use state and local funds to make the whole milk available, this bill gives them protection from those actions,” said Lawrence. “This is optional. If a school wants to go down this road, they would be able to. But if they want to continue down the current path, they can do that too. We know some schools are ready for this, but the long arm of the federal government and that regulatory thrust gives them pause. For those schools that are interested in pursuing this option, the bill provides the protection to make it happen.”
Lawmakers attending the press conference made it clear that this package of bills, especially H.B. 2397, will have a positive impact on Pennsylvania dairy farmers.
When asked how much of an impact, Ebert said simply: “We’ve all seen the steady decline in milk consumption. When we lose farmers, they are not coming back. With every loss of a dairy cow (in PA), we lose $14,000 to $15,000 of economic activity in Pennsylvania. If we sell more product in Pennsylvania, then that boosts the economy for our farmers and the economy for the infrastructure that supports them.”
When asked by a reporter where the Senate stands and the leadership, State Senator Camera Bartolotta, representing Beaver, Greene and Washington counties, spoke up.
“We’ve already been talking about it,” said Senator Barolotta. “We are going to be pushing it along in the Senate as soon as it gets to our chamber. This is going to be good for our farmers, but more importantly, it helps get kids back to (being able) to drink whole milk again that is good for them. It’s time to protect our kids and our dairy farmers and our number one industry.”
Passing the Ag Committee along with H.B. 2397 are two other bills Rep. Lawrence has been working on for many years as reported on recently in Farmshine.
“House Bill 223 provides tax incentives to bring new and additional dairy processing to Pennsylvania that commit to using Pennsylvania milk to provide opportunity for our Pennsylvania dairy farmers,” said Lawrence about the other bills heading to the House floor. “House Bill 224 would provide the Milk Marketing Board with the opportunity to provide more transparency and accountability around the state-mandated over-order milk premium.”
Lawrence stated that he sees the most enthusiasm in the House for H.B. 2397 the Whole Milk for Pennsylvania Schools Act, but all three bills are important for Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers.