Why World School Milk Day will never celebrate plant milks


Wednesday, 28 September, 2016

Ali Ryland reports on why political and economic factors are too entrenched within dairy milk production and promotion to include plant milks in schools

This Wednesday 28 September is World School Milk Day, a day that has been held across the world since the year 2000, bolstered by its association with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UNFAO). One of the stated aims of the day is to celebrate and raise awareness of free and subsidised school milk programmes, which exist in over 34 countries across the world, including the UK, US, Japan, Argentina, South Africa and Finland to name a few. 

Unsurprisingly enough, none of these schemes will subsidise or cover alternatives to dairy milk. In Britain, when the passing of the 1946 School Milk Act mandated free school milk for all children under the age of 18, it was more understandable. At the time, rationing was still under way, and milk was seen to be one of the main sources of calcium for poorer children. There were limited viable plant-based options. Britain’s first commercially available soya milk was not created until 1965, and while fortified with Vitamin D and B12, it would have contained little calcium. And it’s hard to imagine state legislation forcing children to chow down on tough stalks of raw kale at break time, many years away from the luxury of kale crisps. 

Thirty years later, after the scheme was scrapped for all but under 7’s, new school milk schemes were introduced in the West, explicitly covering dairy milk only. Ironically, these schemes were introduced to unload the EU and the United States of ‘lakes of milk’: a surplus that had built up after post-WW2 efforts to incentivise agricultural output were too successful. Rather than address the economic and social factors causing the surplus, such as removing incentivisation and understanding the needs of a public growing weary of dairy, political inertia and lobbying from the dairy industry ensured that any efforts in that direction were minimal at best. Instead we had the EU School Milk Scheme – explicitly created to encourage “children to develop a lifelong habit of consuming milk and milk products” – and the creation of state- controlled yet industry run milk marketing boards, one of which would famously produce the successful ‘Got Milk?’ campaign.

But today, we know the damage dairy production has on our natural environment. We have a wide variety of fortified plant milks that are nutritious and promote heart health. Has this changed nothing? 

Unfortunately not. We still produce milk at a surplus, despite the fact that declining rates in milk consumption have been projected for years. Meanwhile, the plant milk industry makes huge gains. Dairy industries and governments try to turn back the tide via the old methods, using something seemingly as innocent as school milk. Not only do school milk schemes prop up the dairy industry – school milk accounts for 7% of national milk consumption in the US –  they also provide a direct route into marketing in schools.

For many years DairyCo, recently assimilated by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, have produced ‘Food – A Fact of Life’ resources for schools, working closely with local authorities to make sure that dairy is firmly on the curriculum as an essential part of a daily diet. More recently, Tesco have begun running ‘farm to fork’ trails via their ‘Eat Happy project’ and providing in-class resources that have the added benefit of promoting the multinational retailer at the same time. Lobbying in schools is nothing new, and World School Milk Day is yet another chance for producers and organisations across the world to promote consumption while offering mawkish suggestions to celebrate the day. Having a ‘mooing contest at school’, or drawing happy pictures of cows on sunny farms are exercises that are designed to gloss over the brutal realities of the dairy industry. Children are not taught what happens to male calves after they are born. Nor are they taught that mothers die exhausted and beaten after six years of pain, stress and loss, when they should be living to three times that age.

Not only does World School Milk Day and its associated schemes discriminate against vegans and those who for cultural or religious reasons do not drink dairy, it feeds children misinformation with their milk. These days, when soy milk can cost as little at 55p in supermarkets – the same price as unpopular UHT cow’s milk – we know that this discrimination is not due to cost. We know that it’s not about nutrition: fortified plant milks are a great contribution to a balanced diet, with soya milk being thought to lower cholesterol. Put simply, it’s all about politics. World School Milk Day is used as a promotional prop for a failing industry. When will we decide enough is enough?

By Ali Ryland

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