Alan Bjerga: Hello and welcome to the Dairy Defined Podcast.
With consumer choice scientific research and congressional legislation all going its way, 2024 promises to be a breakthrough year for whole milk. The variety that shoppers prefer most is also poised to return to school lunch menus given the bipartisan approval of the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act in the House of Representatives, and it will figure prominently in consideration for updated federal Dietary Guidelines that are due next year. Joining us is NMPF’s Nutrition Policy Czar, Claudia Larson, and Regulatory Affairs Director Miquela Hanselman, who is our lead on the Dietary Guidelines. Hello, Miquela and Claudia.
Claudia Larson: Hi, Alan.
Miquela Hanselman: Hi Alan. Thanks for having us today.
Alan Bjerga: I want to start with you, Claudia. Just to temper things a bit, we’ve all been excited about the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act, but it isn’t yet law. Tell us what’s happened and what you’re trying to make happen this year.
Claudia Larson: So most recently, the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act passed through the US House of Representatives with what we would call a commanding bipartisan vote, demonstrating widespread support in the US House, both in the Republican and Democratic parties to return 2% and whole milk as good options in our school meal programs. Since the passage of that bill, all eyes are on the Senate now to see if the Senate’s either going to pick up the House’s version or move their own version of the bill, which itself has bipartisan support, including an independent senator co-sponsoring the bill.
So we are looking to the Senate to see if they will pick up and move that bill. Currently, we are looking to build even more bipartisan support for that bill to really demonstrate to the Senate that there is not only bipartisan support on the House side, but also broad support on the Senate side to move that bill and to get it across the finish line so schools can again have the option of serving 2% and whole milk in the school meal programs.
Alan Bjerga: How realistic would you peg passage this year? And if you’re a dairy activist at home or in your tractor, what can you do to increase those chances?
Claudia Larson: Well, I think there definitely is a real possibility that this bill becomes law this year. It is an election year. We would expect it to probably have to move in the first half of the year, probably at least before August. There is, again, broad support for this. We have heard from so many farmers and school nutritionists across the country who are supportive of this bill.
So I think what it really comes down to is showing the US Senate, showing our senators there that we really do want this bill to become law. This is important to our students, this is important to our schools, this is important to our parents. And I think, again, the best way to do that is to reach out to your senators, let them know that this is important to you and your children in your community and ask them to please co-sponsor the bill. Ask them to talk to leadership and say that this is an important part of our overall effort to make sure kids have access to vital nutrients.
A quick and easy way to do that would actually to go to National Milk’s website where there is, we would call it our call to action page. But if you just go to the main page of National Milk, so nmpf.org, National Milk Producers Federation, there’s a page there that says, “Support increasing kids access to milk’s vital nutrients,” and you click on a button that says Take Action. And what this does is connect individuals who want to reach out to their senators, to their senators with the opportunity to write a note and tell their senators how vital it is that we move this bill. So again, you can call your senator, you can email your senator, or you can use this quick connection that we have set up on National Milk’s page so people can reach out and really voice their support for this really important child nutrition bill.
Alan Bjerga: And that is at nmpf.org. It’s our Take Action page. So you just look for Take Action on the menu, you click on that, you’ll be taken right there.
So all this is going on on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, there’s a regulatory effort going on. This is the twice a decade revision to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans. We’re having a meeting on it this month. The process is moving forward. That’s an action led together by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. Where are we in that process, Miquela, and how does whole milk figure into that debate?
Miquela Hanselman: So right now, the advisory committee is reviewing the science to determine the recommendations that they’ll make to the Department of Health and Human Services and USDA for updating the Dietary Guidelines. So the way it goes is to determine which areas should be looked at for each update. In the Dietary Guidelines, there’s these scientific questions that are identified, and these are based on a number of things. One of them being what was included in the Future Directions chapter of the previous committee’s recommendations.
So once the scientific questions are determined, that kind of tells the committee what science they need to be looking at to answer those questions. One of the scientific questions this time is looking at the relationship between sources of saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. So this was something that had been pointed to by the previous committee in that Future Directions chapter that I had mentioned, and it’s important for whole milk because of that blanket claim that’s been said that all saturated fat is bad. And that was really one of the main drivers for only recommending fat-free and 1% milk varieties.
So our hope this time is that the committee will at least include that newer science on dairy fat that demonstrates that there’s a neutral or positive relationship with whole milk and cardiovascular disease, obesity, stroke, and so on in their review, which would hopefully lead to an updated recommendation that includes whole milk in the DGAs.
Alan Bjerga: Given how valuable whole milk is for nutrition and its popularity in the marketplace as a source of nutrition and the preponderance of the scientific evidence saying, “Hey, this is good nutrition,” why are we even in this position trying to convince the committee that whole milk needs more support?
Miquela Hanselman: Well, it largely goes back to the thought that all fat is bad. I mean, I know my grandparents’ generation, my grandma drinks fat-free milk because they grew up hearing fat is bad, you need low fat, everything. It wasn’t until more recently that studies began to show that there is a difference in health outcomes really based on that source of saturated fat. And it goes back to what we’re now calling the dairy matrix, which is that interplay of all the components and milk and dairy products that do lead to the neutral or positive outcomes when it comes to certain diseases. But on the flip side of that, I mean, I think as humans generally we’re resistant to change, and so the committee is trying to make the best recommendation possible based on the science they have available. I think the biggest thing for us this time around is that we really just want them to look at the new science, to take that into consideration.
Alan Bjerga: You mentioned something that I think has a lot of implications for another set of debates as well. I’m thinking about plant-based, lab-based equivalent forms of nutrition. With the dairy matrix, this really is about not just what the nutrient is, but how substances interact. Is that something that you see the Dietary Guidelines’ becoming more mindful of? Because you look at the science on this and you look at the implication of that philosophy, it has a lot to say about whether soy beverages fortified are really equivalent, or if you synthesize a dairy protein in a lab, do you call it milk? I know this is a separate question, but I’d be really interested in what your thoughts are on that in terms of where it fits into current dietary science debates.
Miquela Hanselman: It’s definitely starting to come up more and more in the debates. I want to say the committee this time around is focused so much on that. If you see them include some of the newer science on dairy fats, those studies will be included about the dairy matrix and all of that.
Alan Bjerga: So bringing it back to whole milk, here’s a question for both of you. We’ve talked about whole milk on Capitol Hill. We’re talking about it in the agencies. Where do they intersect? And this is an intentional pun, what is the holistic perspective on this?
Claudia Larson: So when it comes to milk in schools, current law requires that the varieties of milk served in school meal programs be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. So every time those Dietary Guidelines are updated, there is the opportunity for new types of milk to be allowed in square meal programs. Any sort of opposition that we have for this bill tends to come from those who say, “Well, we should let the Dietary Guidelines process play out. We should let the Dietary Guidelines expand the options for milk. And we really shouldn’t be doing this via congressional statute.” However, we do believe that showing broad support for this measure, again bipartisan support in both chambers, should really help signal to the Dietary Guidelines committee that the science is real, there is broad support for this, and they really do need to consider this updated science in this round of their review.
Miquela Hanselman: Yeah. And it’s kind of when you think about the committee, they’re looking at the science, but they’re also human beings. And the House passing this bill with such strong commanding support signals that this is an issue that is being taken seriously. If anything, it makes it so USDA and HHS are hopefully giving this a closer look.
Claudia Larson: And just in case they don’t this go round, all the more reason that we do want to see support for this bill on the Senate side and hopefully get it across the finish line. June/July would be fantastic.
Alan Bjerga: World Milk Day is June 1st. Is there anything else we need to know beyond the need for activists to take action at nmpf.org, the Take Action page? What else is there about this issue that you think people listening to this need to understand?
Claudia Larson: I always just want to flag one thing here with regards to the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act. What this bill does, it doesn’t force schools to serve varieties of milk they don’t want to serve, and it doesn’t force students to drink milk that they don’t want to drink. What it does is it provides our schools expanded options that are helpful and that kids tend to like to drink more. And it gives them these options so they can actually address students’ real nutrient intake needs. And I think when we provide our schools with the ability to better serve students and better address nutrition insecurity, then it’s good for all of us.
Miquela Hanselman: And help decrease hopefully food waste by giving children the options they want.
Alan Bjerga: That was NMPF Director of Regulatory Affairs, Miquela Hanselman and Claudia Larson, whose actual title at NNPF is senior director, Government Relations and head of Nutrition Policy. Be sure to catch Claudia at Dairy Forum next week in Arizona. If you are going there next week, she’s going to be speaking on a panel about some issues related to nutrition and diverse communities that also can be served very well by whole milk.
We do have the Call to Action live at nmpf.org/takeaction if you want to go straight to the URL, or just go off the website. And we do want you to spread this word. So however you got to this podcast, please share it far and wide. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. Thanks.