Happy Earth Day! - Be Plant Positive!

Dairy Dilemma

18 March 2024

I mentioned that milk is the only food that's required to be offered in every school meal. For all other food groups - the fruits, vegetables, grains and protein - kids have choices.

Anyone who needs an alternative to dairy milk (at least, in New York State), the school requires a note from home, and the federal government offers no additional reimbursement to schools for such alternatives.  But 80% of African Americans and 90% of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant, and Lactaid may be offered, but that's not even considering kids who might want to avoid dairy for religious, cultural or ethical reasons.

It's true that milk contributes three important nutrients - calcium, vitamin D and potassium - to the diets of many otherwise-food-insecure children.  But the purchasing power of our national school meals program also exacerbates demand for a factory farming system devoid of animal and human welfare.

Recent chatter about the “double standard” of a health halo around plant-based milks misses the point.  Why is dairy even its own food group? Nutrients found in milk are either added in (vitamins A & D) or could easily be found in other foods (calcium and potassium).

When choosing a plant based alternative to dairy, check that it is fortified with similar nutrients. Additionally, focus on whole, plant based food sources of calcium in your diet.

Consuming a varied, whole foods, plant based diet is the best way to get a balance of all the nutrients you need. Our school lunch program is, for our most vulnerable youngsters, the most nutritious meal of their day. It's a huge opportunity to teach kids that plants are superfoods, and promote a food system that prioritizes whole foods.  Instead, many schools, due to tight budgets and ever-changing regulations, are forced to rely on ultra processed foods that have been formulated to meet USDA requirements for sodium and fat.

Despite the research that hot dogs and sausages are known carcinogens, these remain easily approved items in school meals. Meanwhile, tofu in a smoothie is not creditable toward protein requirements, because it is not “easily recognizable.”

Isn't it about time for the USDA to catch up with the (decades old) science and also consider equity-minded inclusion?

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