Bill to reform the USDA “milk mandate” could save 21,500 calves per year born to cows milked for the National School Lunch Program
WASHINGTON D.C.–– The title of the Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth (ADD SOY) Act offers little hint that it might be considered either a civil rights bill or an animal rights bill.
Yet it is both.
Amid the flurry of bills vying for Congressional favor as amendments to the pending 2024 Farm Bill, the ADD SOY bill might also be among the longest of longshots.
The House of Representatives version, HR 1619, with 20 co-sponsors, and the Senate companion bill, S. 2943, introduced by four Senators with just three additional co-sponsors, could scarcely be more obscure in the public eye.
Dairy industry running scared
But the ADD SOY bill has scared the secretions out of the dairy industry.
Few pending bills, if any, could accomplish more to make American diets healthier for all; appropriately re-direct farm subsidies; end a colossal waste of tax money; and abolish institutional racism.
The ADD SOY aims to reform animal agriculture in the direction of using fewer cows, birthing fewer calves, and creating less pollution, all of which would hugely reduce animal suffering and greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.
Equally significant, the ADD SOY bill would help to ensure that children of every ethnicity get comparable nutrition on their school lunch trays.
What are HR 1619 and S.2943 all about?
“The Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth (ADD SOY) Act requires public schools to offer a nutritionally equivalent soy milk option to children participating in the National School Lunch Program, and allows for the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] to reimburse schools for those purchases, just as it does for cow’s milk,” explained Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy in a September 28, 2023 joint media release.
By law, the media release explained, “The USDA provides a reimbursement of $1 billion for cow’s milk to public schools across the country, placing a carton of milk on every tray. This ‘milk mandate’ denies millions of kids who are lactose intolerant a nutritious beverage option.
“According to the USDA’s findings,” the media release continued, “29% of the cartons of milk served in our schools are thrown in the garbage unopened, sending at least $300 million in tax dollars into the trash. Another study found that children discard 45 million gallons of milk each year,” equivalent to the total milk production of about 21,500 Holstein cows.
That equals 21,500 calf births induced to make the cows produce milk.
“The majority of children of color are lactose intolerant”
Emphasized U.S. Senator Cory Booker, of New Jersey, a co-author of ADD SOY, “The majority of children of color are lactose intolerant, and yet our school lunch program makes it difficult [for them] to access nutritious, non-dairy beverages. We must ensure that all children have access to nutrient-rich drink options that do not make them sick.”
Pointed out the Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy media release, “The Women, Infants & Children’s Program provides non-dairy options for recipients [of food aid], but the National School Lunch Program does not.”
Momentum toward introducing ADD SOY appears to have begun with an August 4, 2022 letter to the USDA Equity Commission jointly signed by National Action Network senior vice president Ebonie Riley, National Urban League president Marc H. Morial, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Maryland state conference president Willie Flowers, and Gilead Medical Group Inc., president Milton Mills M.D.
“Inherently inequitable & socially unjust”
Additional co-signers included Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy president Wayne Pacelle, 2012 Olympic cycling medalist Dotsie Bausch, and representatives of 22 other organizations, among them the Afro-Vegan Society, Black Vegan Experience, Jewish Veg, Latino Political Avenue, and Women of Color for Equal Justice.
Opened Riley, Morial et al, “We write to you to bring to the Equity Commission’s attention the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ongoing participation in an inherently inequitable and socially unjust program: the routine delivery of cow’s milk to tens of millions of children and the failure to provide a practical alternative for them, even though large percentages of these young people are lactose-intolerant or have allergies to the product.
“80% of African Americans are lactose intolerant”
“While thirty to fifty million Americans suffer from lactose intolerance,” Riley, Morial et al explained, “it is least common among those white Americans of Northern European descent. It is prevalent in Asian Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans.
“Eighty percent of African Americans and Native Americans are lactose intolerant. Among Asian Americans that rate rises to over 90%.”
Geography of evolution of husbandry
This discrepancy arises from the geography of the evolution of animal agriculture. Cattle husbandry originated as herding animals for meat in eastern Africa circa 10,000 years ago.
Within Africa, cattle herding spread south through the veldt to modern-day South Africa, but did not spread west through the Sahara desert, or through the densely wooded Congo basin.
From eastern Africa, cattle husbandry moved north into the Caucasus region of Central Asia, then east to India and Southeast Asia, and west into northern Europe, where most of the best known milking breeds developed: Holstein, Jersey, Frisian, brown Swiss, et al, along with “beef” breeds such as the Hereford, Highland, and Angus.
The spread of milk culture
Cattle husbandry did not easily cross the Himalayas into China, however, and did not become established in the more mountainous parts of eastern Europe, for example Greece, where the terrain better accommodated herding sheep and goats.
Where domesticated cattle went, people over thousands of years evolved the ability to digest cow’s milk, and often made it a dietary staple. Milk consumption, in turn, in the form of cheese if not always in liquid form, became central to the food cultures of India, Ireland, the Netherlands and lowland Germany, France, and much of Scandinavia.
These became the sources of most Caucasian immigration to the U.S.
Where cattle husbandry was not introduced until relatively recently, if at all, becoming able to easily digest cow’s milk simply did not happen.
“Lactose intolerance,” the letter from Riley, Morial, et al continued, “is a condition that prevents people from being able to fully digest the sugar (lactose) found in milk and other dairy products. This inability to break down lactose into simpler sugars for absorption into the bloodstream results in undigested lactose sitting in the lower intestinal tract, where bacteria works to break it down.
“This bacterial action causes varying degrees of intestinal discomfort in lactose-intolerant people and often gives rise to diarrhea, nausea, cramps, bloating and, in severe cases, vomiting.
“There is no cure for lactose intolerance,” the letter said. “People diagnosed with [lactose intolerance] are cautioned to reduce or eliminate dairy from their diets.”
“Our public schools are diverse”
“Our public schools are diverse,” Riley, Morial, et al emphasized, “with up 26 million non-white children enrolled across the country. While USDA does not maintain statistics related to the ethnicity of participants in the National School Lunch Program, we do know that over thirty million children in over one hundred thousand schools take part in the program. Studies indicate that children of color have historically been over-represented in the National School Lunch Program.
“Under regulatory requirements,” Riley, Morial et al explained, “USDA mandates that dairy milk be included with every meal that is served to students who participate in the National School Lunch Program in order for financially-challenged schools to get reimbursed by federal dollars for the meals they serve.
“While the law does allow for nutritionally equivalent milk substitutes,” Riley, Morial et al acknowledged, “a ‘written statement from a licensed physician that identifies the disability that restricts the student’s diet and that specifies the substitute for fluid milk’ is required. Given the lack of medical access in many underserved communities and the cost/burden of seeking medical treatment for dietary needs, many families with lactose intolerant children are unable to provide the documentation necessary to meet the written statement requirement.
“It is patently discriminatory,” Riley, Morial et al argued, “to require a doctor’s note for a nearly ubiquitous condition. In short, black, Native American, Asian and Latino children are being punished for their race and heritage. You get a note if you have an unusual condition,” not––logically––for being normal as a member of a large, conspicuous racial or ethnic group.
“Children are getting sick by the millions”
Lactose intolerant children, Riley, Morial et al pointed out, “are left with only two unjust options: either drink the milk they are given and suffer intestinal discomfort as they struggle to learn in classrooms following their lunch period, or go without a nutritionally significant portion of their meal. They are put in a terrible condition: take something that makes them ill, or deny themselves a food product that helps them meet their minimum daily requirements.
“Both things are happening. Children are getting sick by the millions, with untold effects on learning and well-being. And they are tossing unopened containers of milk in the garbage where they contribute to massive amounts of food and fiscal waste each year.”
Congressional “statutory prescriptions have contributed to USDA’s dangerous policies that hurt children of color,” Riley, Morial et al acknowledged, “but the USDA has discretion that it can and must exercise to remedy this circumstance,” including “under the USDA’s own regulatory mandate” to prevent discrimination based on race, color, or national origin.
“The federal government has already formally recognized that soy milk is nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk,” Riley, Morial et al wrote. “We recommend a proportional reimbursement by USDA of soy milk purchases; new costs to the federal government would largely be offset by decreased spending for cow’s milk purchases.
“Diversity, equity, inclusion”
“The Biden administration has made addressing diversity, equity and inclusion issues a priority across the federal government, including at the Department of Agriculture,” Riley, Morial et al concluded.
“Until children of color are properly provided for in the USDA-funded National School Lunch Program, the ‘And Justice for All’ posters that the agency requires participating public schools to display in their lunch rooms are simply empty rhetoric.”
A footnote to the Riley, Morial et al letter mentioned that “Approximately 0.4 percent of children are allergic to soy and some undetermined percentage of those will also suffer from lactose intolerance. In addition to providing soy milk to lactose intolerant children, USDA should provide nutritious beverage options for school children who suffer from both soy allergies and lactose intolerance.”
This would allow for subsidies to encourage the consumption of oat milk and/or almond milk.
ANIMALS 24-7 board member Roger Witherspoon, a journalist for more than 50 years and a cofounder of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, saw an economic justice issue as well as a social justice issue in the question of which alternatives to cow’s milk should be subsidized by the National School Lunch Program.
“The idea of providing an alternative to cow’s milk that’s equally nutritious sounds like a good idea to me,” Witherspoon emailed. “Since I haven’t covered agricultural issues in decades, I won’t pretend to know what those alternatives should be.
“But if there are more than one nutritious alternative available, then the government should provide all with the same opportunity to compete in this lucrative market.”
National Urban League alters course
The signature of National Urban League president Marc H. Morial on the Riley, Morial et al letter was significant because the National Urban League, formed in 1910 “to enable and empower African-Americans and others in underserved communities to achieve their highest human potential and secure economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights,” has for decades marked Martin Luther King Day in as many as 90 cities with giveaways of dairy products, among other groceries, to low-income families.
The National Urban League has also lobbied in favor of price supports for dairy farmers, to help keep milk prices low. The National School Lunch Program milk mandate originated in 1949 with federal subsidies to the dairy industry, encouraged by the National Urban League as well as by many other organizations.
But farm economics have markedly changed in the early 21st century. There are now only 36,000 working dairy farms in the U.S., most of them owned by corporate conglomerates.
By contrast, there are 550,000 soybean farmers in the U.S., nearly 74,000 oat growers, with the number rapidly rising in response to the growing popularity of oat milk, and 7,600 almond growers.
Most of the soybean farmers and many of the oat growers produce their crops primarily for animal consumption, including by dairy cattle. But selling soy beans and oats to producers for human consumption pays much more per ton of crop.
Already, manufacturers buying oats for human consumption are out-bidding purchasers of oats for animal consumption, stimulating a steep rise in oat planting in recent years.
As influential as the dairy industry remains, aligned economically and politically with the beef industry, dairy may not remain more profitable than plant-based dairy alternatives for very much longer.
“There would be reprisals”
The Riley, Morial et al letter did not bring action from the USDA, but it was noticed by Congress.
“There would be reprisals if the United States were to put a product on the trays of white kids that caused potentially widespread adverse reactions,” 31 members of Congress said in a 2022 letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack,” according to Joseph Winters of Grist on May 19, 2023.
“To be clear,” Winters wrote, “the USDA dairy rules don’t require students to actually take a carton of cow’s milk with their meals; schools just have to offer it.”
George Washington Carver
The Riley, Morial et al letter did not exactly raise new issues. George Washington Carver, 1864-1943, argued that peanut milk would be healthier for African-American children than cow’s milk.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Farm Sanctuary waged unsuccessful campaigns in the 2005-2010 time frame urging the USDA to require the dairy industry to add warnings about lactose intolerance to product labeling.
Reported Mike Stobbe for Associated Press in 2005, “The prevalence of lactose intolerance probably hasn’t gotten a lot of attention because many policy makers and media members are Caucasian and don’t think of it as a common problem, said Hetal Karsan, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
“It’s Caucasian bias,” Karsan told Stobbe.
Karsan is himself lactose intolerant, though originally from India.
“Late in 2004,” Stobbe wrote, “the National Medical Association, comprising black physicians, issued a special report––funded by the National Dairy Council––on the role of dairy in the diet of blacks.
“It cited unpublished research that concluded only 49% of blacks report ever feeling discomfort after eating dairy,” but “only 49%” is nearly half.