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Many BIPOC Students Are Lactose Intolerant. Why Is Milk Still Their Only Option?

Offering nondairy options in U.S. school cafeterias would help level the playing field for BIPOC students.

Milk is displayed in the outdoor cafeteria at Bathgate Elementary School in Mission Viejo, California, on October 2, 2019.

Cognition, concentration and vigor are wellness markers associated with healthy diets. They also happen to be predictors of academic performance, including educational attainment for both children and young adults. But there is a misguided belief among the public that balanced, nutritious diets are by default healthy diets. While the reverse is true — healthy diets are balanced and nutritious — failure to recognize intolerance or allergies to certain foods, particularly in children, has dire consequences for cognition, concentration and related faculties.

Regrettably, such failure is epitomized in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which was created by the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act of 1946. This federal law provides low-cost or free school lunch meals to disadvantaged students through subsidies to schools. A similar program, the School Breakfast Program, was created later in 1966 and made permanent in 1975. The National Center for Education Statistics places the number of students enrolled in the NSLP program for year 2021-22 at 47.3 million, with 23 million children eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The USDA’s one-size-fits-all approach to feeding those millions of U.S. youths through NSLP fails to take into account the issue of lactose intolerance — a condition resulting from maldigestion of the milk sugar lactose. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, about 68 percent of the world’s population and roughly 36 percent of people in the U.S. have lactose malabsorption. Yet, NSLP exclusively relies on cow’s milk and dairy products to feed children in schools, even though U.S. Dietary Guidelines recognized fortified soy milk as a nutritional equivalent to dairy cow milk in 2020.

In fact, NSLP policy mandates that lactose-dense cow milk cartons are added to breakfast and lunch trays. This leaves millions of young learners in significant distress, either due to adverse medical reactions after consuming nontolerated milk products, or because of nutritional deficiency resulting from their avoidance of forced dairy items altogether — a self-preservation measure improvised in the absence of alternatives.

According to the 2019 USDA School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study, approximately 21 percent of calories available in school lunches were wasted. Jarringly, 29 percent of milk cartons served are thrown in the garbage, unopened. The report placed the total value of these unopened, discarded milk cartons at $300 million annually. Add to this the incalculable economic burden caused by sick days, medical treatment and distress to families, not to mention the logistical cost and massive environmental footprints of growing, developing, processing, delivering and disposing of dairy milk products — perishable items with almost 30 percent destined for landfills, unused.

USDA data on discarded milk in schools is not surprising. Lactose intolerance causes a range of medical issues, including vomiting, diarrhea, stomach abnormalities and fatigue. Autoimmune conditions like Celiac disease, Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn’s disease are also associated with lactose intolerance (referred to as secondary lactose intolerance). Separately, according to the Mayo Clinic, allergies to milk proteins are among the most common allergies in children. Sometimes confused with lactose intolerance, milk allergies nonetheless cause stomach upset, vomiting, hives, bloody stools and even anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that impairs breathing and can send the body into shock.

“Our nation’s milk mandate is a surefire way to cause digestive distress and to impede classroom learning for millions of school kids with lactose intolerance,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action and my organizations, the Center for a Humane Economy, in a statement. “It’s also a matter of reckless food and fiscal waste, easily remedied by giving kids a soymilk option.”

Pacelle and other advocates like Dotsie Bausch, executive director and founder of plant-based advocacy nonprofit Switch4Good, see the current practices at NSLP and the School Breakfast Program as at odds with the basic purpose of the School Lunch Act, which was also designed to prevent food waste by absorbing production surplus in the aftermath of World War II. Right now, they say, the NSLP neither prevents food waste nor provides healthy school lunch choices to the most disadvantaged students.

The role of the NSLP is to ensure that children, especially those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), are provided with sustenance to optimize their learning experience. For many of these students, school-provided breakfast and lunch may be their only reliable meals. Yet BIPOC students are adversely and disproportionately impacted by current USDA policy and practices: Alarmingly, the rates of lactose intolerance in BIPOC communities are very high, with 65 percent of Latino students, 75 percent of Black students and 90 percent of Asian students being lactose intolerant.

While failure to provide alternatives to dairy milk products through NSLP may not be intentionally racially motivated; it remains shortsighted and insensitive. Many broad mid-20th century policy mandates were oblivious to diversity factors due to skewed sampling of representative groups and unconscious bias. There has been a marked change in classroom demographics over the years, with the percentage of BIPOC students and immigrants steadily increasing. Through nutritional sciences, population studies and modern survey tools, we are also learning more about digestive disorders, including food intolerance and allergies in race- and community-specific cohorts. Still, none of these explanations should have delayed the introduction of nondairy alternatives in the NSLP by the USDA, which is long overdue.

These youths must be given every opportunity to succeed and become prepared to enter the workforce. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), examines global metrics in reading, mathematics and science. In the latest PISA test, U.S. students performed below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average in mathematics and just above average in reading and science. Not surprisingly, socioeconomically advantaged students outperformed disadvantaged students in reading, mathematics and science.

On September 28, 2022, the White House convened a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. The first of its kind in 50 years, the conference provided a platform for discussing a range of U.S. nutritional challenges, including issues affecting children. The “National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition and Health” was also unveiled at the conference. Among other things, the strategy underscores “expanding [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] eligibility to more underserved populations,” “proposing to update the nutrition criteria for the ‘healthy’ claim on food packages” and “expanding incentives for fruits and vegetables in SNAP.” Importantly, the strategy also affirms the need to “increase the availability of healthy beverage choices as well as plant-based options.”

The next month, several members of Congress wrote a letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack raising serious concerns related to the operation of the NSLP. They urged the Secretary Vilsack to take actions “to make [soy milk] available to kids in schools who need an alternative to cow’s milk.”

Fast forward to October 2023, when the USDA made available more than $60 million in school meals. Still, no action was taken to address the “elephant in the room” — healthy beverage choices and plant-based options. One reason for the USDA’s failure is clear: the influence of the powerful dairy industry. Maintaining the status quo at NSLP ensures a steady stream of animal milk sales and safeguards the dairy market’s share dominance, which comes with hefty profits (plant-based milk’s share is only 15.3 percent). No doubt the introduction of plant-based milk to these hungry markets is perceived as an economic threat that must be squashed. NSLP operates in nearly 100,000 public and nonprofit private schools, as well as residential child care institutions.

Supplying these markets with dairy milk comes with another severe drawback: the extraordinary pressure to mass produce milk through factory farming. Not only is factory farming cruel and unsustainable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that three out of four novel infectious diseases are rooted in zoonotic transmissions, i.e. transmissions from animals to humans. With factory farming in overdrive, animal wellness deteriorates and the heightened risk of pandemics follows.

Enforceable policy mandates are clearly needed to force change at USDA. Bipartisan legislation recently introduced by Representatives Troy Carter Sr. and Nancy Mace in the House, and by Senators John Fetterman, John Kennedy, Cory Booker and Roger Wicker in the Senate, is now seeking to fill this policy gap. Aptly titled the ADD SOY Act, it stands for Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth Act.

If enacted, the ADD SOY Act will make soy milk available to children who need an alternative to dairy milk. Moreover, the legislation will eliminate many inefficiencies within the USDA-administered NSLP, including the cumbersome “milk note” requirement that places undue burden on families, especially in BIPOC communities. The act would also direct the USDA to reimburse vendors of soy milk like it does for their dairy milk counterparts.

The ADD SOY Act would bring relief to millions of school children across the U.S. suffering from avoidable digestive distress, including BIPOC students who are the most susceptible. In doing so, the legislation would also bolster student readiness. The icing on the cake for these changemakers — and to all of us — is that this can be done while helping the planet and improving animal welfare.

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