Will whole milk return to US schools? Congress set to vote on bill that enjoys ‘strong bipartisan support’

Milk, regardless of whether it’s low-fat or whole, provides the same 13 essential nutrients. According to the National Milk Producers’ Federation research, whole milk is the most consumed milk variety in the US, followed by 2% fat milk – but neither are currently part of federal school meal programs due to concerns regarding saturated fat and sugar content.

However, milk producers argue that excluding the most commonly-consumed milk types from school menus is a key contributing factor to food waste. According to WWF, school cafeterias in the US hand out 275 million half-pint cartons of milk to students per day – but 45 million gallons of milk are wasted each year, the equivalent of 68 Olympic-size swimming pools. The organization estimates that producing one gallon of milk requires 17.6 pounds of carbon dioxide and almost 145 gallons of water, meaning that wasted school milk emits the same as 77,000 vehicles would. That impact is made worse when milk waste, such as aseptic beverage cartons, is sent to landfills or for incineration where it produces additional greenhouse gas emissions.

The dairy industry is also concerned that fewer milk cartons are being served at schools and other child care establishments. According to recently-released preliminary data​, total average participation in the National School Lunch Program for 2023 has declined to 28.5 million students, down from 30.1 million in 2022, and around 320 million fewer lunches were served in 2023. 

As part of the Special Milk Program, also known as the School Milk Program, around 9,100 schools, child care institutions and camps participated in 2023, but only 19.1 million half-pints of milk were served. In comparison, in 1999 when a similar number of outlets participated in the program, 126.9 million half-pints were served. Compared with last year’s figures, 18.8 milk cartons were served by significantly fewer child care establishments, around 1,700 according to the data​.

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