WASHINGTON DC, August 9, 2022 – Civil rights, social justice, and health organizations are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to end dietary racism in the National School Lunch Program, and supply millions of Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Indigenous American schoolchildren who cannot digest dairy with a nutritionally equivalent alternative.
The National Urban League, National Action Network Washington Bureau (founded and headed by Rev. Al Sharpton),NAACP’s Maryland State Conference, Switch4Good, Coalition for Healthy School Food, The Center for a Humane Economy, Progressive Democrats of America, and 21 other co-signing organizations have asked the USDA Equity Commission—tasked with addressing racial equity issues in national food and agriculture programs—to recommend changes including a proportional reimbursement to public schools for soy milk. The organizations have demanded the commission conduct an investigation and formulate policy shifts to create a more equitable nutrition program and learning environment.
Up to 80% of Black and Latinx people, up to 95% of Asians, and more than 80% of Indigenous Americans cannot digest lactose without adverse effects. In contrast, only about 15% of people of European descent are lactose-intolerant.
Dietary racism is defined as systemic, structural inequities surrounding food and nutrition that disproportionately and unjustly impact people of color. Dietary racism can include financial, geographic, and/or healthcare barriers that prevent people from accessing healthier foods.
The USDA dictates that cow’s milk must be served with every meal in order for schools to be reimbursed by the NSLP. Currently, only families that provide schools with a doctor’s note may be offered an alternative to cow’s milk. The letter-signers maintain that the requirement for a doctor’s note places an undue cost and burden on parents.
The NSLP serves more than thirty million children in more than 100,000 schools. Children of color have historically been overrepresented in the NSLP.
“The USDA’s own anti-discrimination regulation mandates that the agency take action to correct the current injustice against LI children; and, failure to act, delegitimizes the very existence of the USDA Equity Commission,” said Jo Saint-George, Chief Legal Officer for Women of Color for Equal Justice.
“If Black lives matter, so does our health and nutrition, but the National School Lunch Program has consistently failed children of color,” said Milton Mills, MD, an urgent care physician in Washington DC who has published several research journal articles addressing racial bias in federal nutrition policy. “Either schoolchildren drink the milk they’re given and suffer in class while they’re trying to learn, or they go without a nutritionally significant portion of their meal.”
“It is hard to imagine a more inequitable and socially unjust USDA practice than force-feeding cow’s milk to children who get sick from drinking it,” said Switch4Good executive director Dotsie Bausch. “If 80% of white children got sick from drinking milk, schools, parents, and government agencies would rightly fall over themselves to find a solution.”
The inability to break down lactose in milk and other dairy products into simpler sugars for absorption into the bloodstream results in undigested lactose remaining in the lower gastrointestinal tract. Symptoms often include diarrhea, nausea, cramping, bloating, and, in severe cases, vomiting.
In addition to digestive symptoms, cow’s milk is the most common food allergen for infants and young children. Symptoms include rashes, hives, wheezing, vomiting, and anaphylaxis; long-term effects include compromised immune systems, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and skin problems.
In 2020, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recognized soy milk as a nutritionally equivalent fluid beverage product.
The U.S. government has long provided funding, marketing, and policy initiatives to support the dairy industry. The National School Lunch Program, established in 1946, was created to “encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities” including milk. The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service manages the Dairy Research and Promotion Program, also known as the Dairy Checkoff Program, to promote dairy consumption. The program works with public schools to advertise milk to children.
Switch4Good, a nonprofit disrupting the disinformation Big Dairy feeds the public, has partnered with The Center for a Humane Economy, a nonprofit influencing the conduct of corporations to forge a humane economic order, to encourage adoption of nutritionally equivalent non-dairy milk in the NSLP.
Editor’s Note: download the full letter, including citations here.
Switch4Good is an evidence-based nonprofit organization advocating for a dairy-free world and dismantling the disinformation Big Dairy feeds the public, for the sake of human health, food justice, and the future of our planet. Its coalition of health experts, athletes, social justice warriors, enlightened policymakers, and progressive corporations promotes ethical lifestyles and widespread behavioral change related to how we eat. For more information about founder Dotsie Bausch, the organization, or how to make the switch to a dairy-free diet, please visit: https://switch4good.org.