Milking Congress for What It’s Worth: Big Dairy and Its Role in America’s Public Health Crisis

No matter what school you attended, the components of a public school lunch are uniform. We are accustomed to Styrofoam trays, weirdly shaped slices of pizza and a carton of milk with every meal. While we ate, posters attempting to serve as motivation reminded us about the healthy  nature of our lunches. Random celebrities with white stains around their mouths smiled at us above the text “Got milk?” to reinforce the importance of milk in our diets. “Got milk?” accompanied maxims such as how milk makes our bones stronger. However, the slogan was created by dairy corporations who subsequently paid for all those advertisements as a means to sell their products. Surprisingly, one of most deadly lobbying groups in America is Big Dairy.

The origin of American nutritional standards has an unexpectedly dark and corrupt past. Milk is a school staple because the dairy industry illegally contributed 2 million dollars to Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign in exchange for a large increase in dairy subsidiaries.  This eventually extended to dairy being included in recommended servings and the food pyramid. Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 3 servings of dairy daily, even though most nutritionists disagree with such heavy servings. When the dairy industry pressures Congress and the USDA to sign off on measures promoting dairy, they tend to rely on studies touting the health benefits of dairy—studies they pay groups to conduct. One third of studies conducted on the nutritional value of dairy are paid for by dairy corporations.

The industry has increasingly been ramping up lobbying efforts. Lobbying doubled from 2003 to 2013, from $4 million to $8 million. This translates into laws enforcing standards to incorporate milk into schools. Despite water being a healthier, cheaper option, schools overwhelmingly serve milk, specifically flavored milk. Schools are required to serve milk in order to be eligible for federal reimbursements for lunch funding, effectively coercing them into serving milk at the expense of their students.  While the students suffer, the dairy industry booms, as schools make up almost 10% of the total market for milk.

School lunches tend to shape a person’s long term diet, and our overdependence on dairy as a society is a large but hidden factor in the obesity crisis currently in America. The American government proves it promotes corporate interests over the public interest when it continues to enforce such standards. Reduced-fat milk is the seventh largest contributor of calories in the American diet, and its high levels of saturated fat contribute to an increased risk to heart disease. In addition, 70 percent of the world's adult population is lactose-intolerant and cannot consume milk without stomach issues and other pains. We commonly associate milk with calcium, but milk has been empirically disproven to help bone strength. A 2012 study published by the American Medical Association showed that adolescent females who consume the largest quantities of dairy products have at least as many bones break as those who consume less milk. Dairy is also linked to an increased risk of diabetes, eczema, and acne.

Furthermore, the dairy lobby perpetuates environmental and animal welfare harms that continue to be ignored. Dairy production places immense pressure on the soil and atmosphere as a significant contributor to methane gas production and soil degradation. In addition, animal welfare is poorly regulated, and when supply exceeds demand, dairy suppliers attempt to solve the issue by slaughtering cows to raise prices. In 2016, dairy corporations were sued after killing 500,000 cows to limit the supply of milk. Milk and dairy products are hidden harms to human health and our environment, but continue to be a large component of school lunches as a result of corporate interests.

However, the problem continues to worsen. The Trump Administration recently rolled back Obama-era regulations on the fat content of milk served in schools. A common justification for milk in school lunches is the preference of children, citing children’s tendencies to drink milk over water. However, educators have argued that when healthier options have been provided in the past, children eventually tend to prefer them in the long term.

The nutritional standards in our schools are a symptom of a larger problem—our government continues to rely on corporate interests instead of prioritizing the welfare of our citizens. We commonly cite climate change, oil drilling, and gun violence as examples of our legislators bowing down to corporate entities rather than to their constituents. However, we tend to think about such issues in large, impersonal terms. Corporate influence materializes in our classrooms and our longly held beliefs about our own health. For the government to truly act for the public welfare, they should start by addressing the vast misconceptions they perpetuate for America’s children.