Alan Bjerga: Hello and welcome to the Dairy Defined podcast. Proper nutrition, it’s why people drink milk, and it’s why the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act has its best chance yet of passing Congress this year. The House of Representatives may take up the legislation within weeks, and with bipartisan support in both chambers, Congress this year could get whole and 2% milk back in school lunch menus for the first time since 2010.
This is just one part of a bigger issue, the federal approach to dairy and nutrition programs, which is always a busy area on NMPF’s regulatory front. Joining us to talk about all things dairy and nutrition, our Senior Director of Government Relations, Claudia Larson, and Miquela Hanselman, NMPF Regulatory Affairs Manager. Thanks for joining us.
Claudia Larson: Thanks so much for having us today, Alan.
Miquela Hanselman: Yeah, we’re happy to be here.
Alan Bjerga: Let’s start with you, Claudia. Tell us a little bit about the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act.
Claudia Larson: The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act expands the varieties of healthy milk options schools can choose to serve in meal programs, and we see this as a common sense approach for addressing nutrition insecurity among our nation’s youth. We know that the dietary guidelines reports that children and adolescents do not meet their daily dairy intake recommendations, and this is a nutrition problem for our kids because dairy plays an unparalleled role in delivering the vital nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Milk at all fat levels provides 13 essential nutrients, including three of the four of public health concern, and milk is the number one source of protein for kids ages two through 11, and the top source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D for children ages two through 18. Enter the bipartisan Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act as a solution to this nutrition problem.
We know that school meals are an important source of milk for kids and adolescents. They actually provide 77% of total daily dairy milk consumption for our low income students, ages five to 18. We also know that 2% and whole milk are the most popular varieties sold in stores, and that kids are more likely to drink milk when we provide choices that they actually prefer. The Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act expands the milk options available for schools to serve in the school meal nutrition programs to also include these most popular varieties of 2% and whole milk. It doesn’t require schools to serve 2% and whole milk, but it does give them this broader option so they can choose the healthy milk variety that best serves their students’ nutritional needs.
Alan Bjerga: Tell us why this may be the year for the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act.
Claudia Larson: This bipartisan bill has been introduced in previous congresses, but it has more bipartisan support this Congress and has gotten farther in the legislative process than ever before. The bill is being led in the House by House Ag Committee Chair GT Thompson and Representative Kim Schrier, who’s a pediatrician, Senators Roger Marshall and Peter Welch are leading the bipartisan bill in the Senate.
In the House, the bill was approved by the Ed & Workforce Committee in June. It has 134 co-sponsors, 28 of whom are Democratic members, and of the two pediatricians serving in the house, both are co-sponsors on the bill.
Over in the Senate the bill has 10 original co-sponsors, but introduced in June by Senators Marshall and Welch. Again, Senator Marshall himself is a medical doctor. Of the 10 original co-sponsors in the Senate, three are democratic and one is an independent. We see more support and more bipartisan support for the bill in this Congress than ever before.
Also, school milk as an issue, is really salient right now, more so than it’s been in the past with broad media coverage across the country covering school milk standards, specifically flavored milk in schools as USDA continues its work to update school meal standards.
Alan Bjerga: Tell us more about the science behind this. What do we understand better now than we did in 2010?
Claudia Larson: A growing body of evidence on dairy fat specifically shows that dairy foods at all fat levels have a neutral or positive effect on health outcomes ranging from obesity and diabetes to heart disease and healthy cholesterol levels. When we look specifically on the effects on children’s health, we have several recent studies including systematic reviews and meta-analyses that examine the effect of higher milk consumption. These studies have found that higher milk fat consumption is actually associated with lower childhood obesity, and they’ve concluded the dietary guidelines that recommend reduced fat milk versions may actually not lower the risk of childhood obesity.
Alan Bjerga: Miquela, looking at it from your perspective, how does this understanding that we have of the role of milk fats and diet and the role of milk and nutrition, how does that play into the dairy discussion writ large? We have a new set of dietary guidelines coming up, I know you’re pretty involved in that.
Miquela Hanselman: Yeah, so I would say we’re in a pretty exciting spot right now for dairy and nutrition, and especially when it comes to the dairy fats conversation. Currently only non-fat and low fat dairy products are recommended in the dietary guidelines for Americans. As I’m sure most people are aware, the DGAs or the dietary guidelines are really the foundation for recommendations for what we should be eating. All of the programs through USDA such as the school lunch and breakfast programs have to align with the DGAs and then they’re really the gold standard for any proposed legislation or regulation.
We are in the middle of the 2025-2030 update to the DGAs. They’re updated every five years to stay aligned with the newest science. National Milk has specifically been advocating for the review of the newer science and dairy fats for the past decade. We’re hopeful that this time around we might actually see that happen.
Alan Bjerga: If this is so obvious and the science has been moving this way, why hasn’t it already happened? Why should this be difficult this time around?
Miquela Hanselman: You would think that would be easy. A lot of it has to do with many still believe that fat is bad, so specifically saturated fat, which we know dairy products have, but you are seeing a shift in this philosophy, but it takes time. You look back when my grandparents were growing up, they were told only to eat no fat and low fat foods, and now you can see that shift to a greater acceptance of eating full fat. I mean, look at butter, or if you look at eggs, there was a time when you were told you shouldn’t eat eggs and now they’re a super food. A lot of it is that it just takes time for these changes to be accepted.
The other piece, specifically talking to the DGAs dietary guidelines and being a little more technical, has to do with the protocols they developed to review the science. When they were working on the last round of DJs, the 2020-2025 ones, they didn’t include any single food studies in their review, which eliminated many of the studies on dairy and dairy fat. That advisory committee directed the 2025-2030 committee in their future directions chapter to look into the science on the sources of saturated fat in the diet. This time around there is a specific scientific question looking at the health impacts of the different sources of saturated fat in the diet. That’s really opened the door to look at those studies and include them.
Alan Bjerga: Where are we in the dietary guidelines process and what does NMPF’s work end up being on that going forward?
Miquela Hanselman: The dietary guidelines advisory committee has been selected. The scientific questions that they’re most focused on have been decided, and then they’ve also released their protocols, which the protocols are kind of the framework for how they review the science to answer those scientific questions. Then based on that science, they’ll write the recommendations. They’re in that part of reviewing the science right now.
National Milk just submitted comments on the protocols that, as I said, is the framework for how they review the science. We’ll also be submitting more general comments on overall points of view on that dairy should remain a distinct group, continuing to recommend the three servings of dairy, and the importance role dairy plays in the diet, especially in children when it comes to meeting those essential nutrients.
Then there will also be an opportunity for the public to provide oral comments to the committee. That will happen this fall. National Milk is working with other dairy organizations to kind of make sure that we have all of our bases covered, and then we’ll follow along as needed in case anything else comes up.
Alan Bjerga: Looking at nutrition, what should dairy’s biggest goals be for being able to provide better nutrition for school children, and by extension for all Americans? Claudia, I’d be interested in your perspective from the standpoint of legislation, Miquela, from regulation.
Miquela Hanselman: For starters, I would say USDA right now has two proposed regulations out. The proposed changes to the WIC package that reduces the amount of dairy offered in those packages, and then the changes they proposed to the school meal standards, which in it has a proposed option to remove flavored milk from elementary and middle school meals. That would reduce access to dairy for all of those parties. Even though milk is a source of three of the four nutrients of public health concern and flavored milk is a top choice for kids and most commonly consumed in school meals. On top of that, I would also say seeing the dietary guidelines advisory committee include the newer science and dairy fats in their review, and developing a recommendation about that would be a nice second step.
Claudia Larson: When looking to in increase or improve nutrition security for all Americans, there are really a couple of different areas legislatively where it’s really important that we focus. One is we want to make sure that we are securing and increasing access to dairy’s healthy nutrients and healthy dairy foods through the nutrition programs, which is both supporting nutrition programs just in general, but then it’s also securing or expanding the varieties of dairy foods, of healthful dairy foods that people can access through those programs.
What we also need to do is make sure that all people, even those who can’t digest lactose, have access to those nutrients that dairy provides. This means we must support increasing access to lactose free or reduced lactose dairy options, and we also must ensure for those who are looking for a dairy alternative, that those dairy alternatives are nutritionally equivalent. We cannot be providing people with inferior nutrients or inferior foods just because they can’t digest lactose.
Alan Bjerga: We’ve been speaking with NMPF’s Senior Director of Government Relations, Claudia Larson and Regulatory Affairs Manager, Miquela Hanselman on dairy and federal nutrition programs. Thank you both for your time.
Miquela Hanselman: Thanks, Alan.
Claudia Larson: Thanks Alan. It was great to be here.
Alan Bjerga: To learn more about these issues, visit our nutrition page under, “Key issues,” on nmpf.org. To participate in our call to action on whole milk, go to the website’s advocacy section. Again, that’s nmpf.org.
For more of the Dairy Defined podcast, you can find and subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Amazon Music under the podcast name Dairy Defined. Thank you for joining us.