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New federal guidelines make it easier for school districts to offer flavored milk

September 23, 2018

The Pennsylvania dairy industry is happy about a state policy change that will make it easier for schools to offer low-fat flavored milk for breakfast and lunch.

New federal guidance for the 2018-19 school year allows school districts to offer 1 percent flavored milk to students without obtaining a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA interim final rule for Child Nutrition Programs marks a shift away from the practice under the Obama administration, which, since 2012, limited schools to skim milk, said Shannon Powers, spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture.

“That created a situation that a lot of people were not happy with, in terms of students who don’t like skim milk and in terms of diminishing the market for dairy farmers and what they’re able to supply to schools,” Powers said. “This (rule change) helps remedy that situation.”

In May 2017, revised federal guidelines allowed schools to request a waiver to serve 1 percent flavored milk. To receive a waiver, school food service directors needed to prove waste or complaints by students or parents.

In response to the revised guidelines, the state Departments of Agriculture and Education sent letters to school districts, encouraging them to take advantage of the waiver system. In the 2017-18 school year, 244 Pennsylvania school districts and 64 individual schools applied for and received waivers, according to the Department of Agriculture.

With the start of a new school year, the state departments are once again encouraging school districts to take advantage of the rule change, which dispenses with the waiver system altogether. A joint letter also asked schools to choose Pennsylvania dairy producers and vendors.

The letter was part of a larger strategy by the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf to promote the Pennsylvania dairy industry, which has been suffering from depressed prices and declining demand since 2014. In May, the state launched the “Choose PA Dairy” marketing campaign to encourage the purchase of milk produced in Pennsylvania.

“Milk is a key piece of any good diet, and students should be able to incorporate it into their school days during both breakfast and lunch, if that is their preference,” said Vonda Ramp, director of food and nutrition for the state Department of Education.

School milk sales have declined during the past 10 years, but especially since 1 percent flavored milk was eliminated from school meal and a la carte programs in 2012, said Jayne Sebright, executive director of the Harrisburg-based Center for Dairy Excellence.

“We are hopeful that the trend will reverse and more kids will again choose milk,” Sebright said, noting that the skim milk rule was not popular with schoolchildren.

“One percent milk has a better taste appeal, which ideally will cause more kids to choose milk. That, in turn, will increase the opportunity for milk sales (and) will have a lasting effect on the dairy industry,” she said.

New Alexandria dairy farmer Billy Smith said he welcomes the rule change but doesn’t think it goes far enough. He wants to see the return of 2 percent and whole milk to the schools.

“It’s a significant issue,” he said. “If kids taste skim milk and they don’t like it, then they’re not going to become milk consumers. If we don’t have consumers, then we don’t have dairy farming.”

Smith, who with his wife, Nikki, operates Lone Star Dairy, said schoolchildren also need to be educated on the nutritional benefits of milk. In May, the Smiths ran in the 2018 Pittsburgh Marathon as part of Team Chocolate Milk, a dairy promotion campaign that encourages refueling with chocolate milk after running.

Dave Smith, executive director of the PA Dairymen’s Association, said the goal of the state’s 6,500 dairy farms is to get whole milk back into the schools.

“We think the nutritional value of whole milk is very important to school lunch programs,” Dave Smith said. “We’re not at that point yet, but we’re encouraged by what we’re seeing.”

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