Advocates want to know: Got soy milk?


They want USDA to require a nondairy option By Anne Taulane

Photo credit: ljdfhgeut

"Got Milk?" asks the National Dairy Council. But advocates for healthy school lunches think the question should be "Got soy milk?"

As part of its Healthy School Lunch Campaign, the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine is pushing for changes to the National School Lunch Act that would require schools to offer a nondairy option, such as soy milk.

Advocates say it is an uphill battle. But they also say the change would largely benefit African American, Native American and Asian American minority children-all of whom have dramatically higher rates of lactose intolerance.

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest significant amounts of lactose, the predominant sugar of milk. It's caused by a shortage of the enzyme lactase in the lining of the small intestines. Symptoms such as nausea, cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhea, begin as soon as 30 minutes after eating or drinking foods with lactose.

While only about 15 percent of white children have adverse reactions to cow's milk, as many as 75 percent of all African Americans and American Indians and 90 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant, according to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

"A lot of times kids go to the [school] nurse with an upset stomach after lunch and the nurse thinks they are just trying to get out of class," says Jen Keller, a staff dietician for the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Schools are now required to offer milk as part of the school lunch program. But they are not required to offer a nondairy option unless a student has a doctor's note explaining the condition and specifying food replacements.

The switch can make a difference. The Sam Taylor magnet school in Arkansas saw a drop in the number of students going to the nurse after lunch after it began offering milk substitutes, she says. It turned out the majority of the students-predominantly African-American-were lactose intolerant.

Soy milk advocates say the milk substitute can help prevent milk allergies and lactose intolerance. Milk allergies are caused by a reaction to milk proteins. The reactions can range from hives, eczema and swelling to nausea, diarrhea, sneezing, wheezing and coughing. In the most severe cases, a reaction can result in anaphylactic shock, potentially life-threatening. Although 80 percent of children grow out of their milk allergy by age 6, some have it for life.

To help Congress understand, the Physician's Committee, a nonprofit organization promoting preventative medicine and ethical medical research, has been meeting with Capitol Hill staffers.

Created by Congress in 1946, the National School Lunch Program is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service. The program supplies free or reduced-price lunches to more than 25 million low-income children in 99,000 public and nonprofit private schools and residential childcare institutions each school day. The act, reauthorized every five years, must be passed by Dec. 31.

Denise Bunning, co-founder of the support group Mothers of Children Having Allergies (MOCHA), has two children with severe milk allergies. She discovered her oldest child's allergy to milk when he was 9 months old and she gave him his first milk bottle. One sip sent him into anaphylactic shock. She rushed him to the hospital, where doctors treated him with Benadryl.

Bunning has not asked her son's school, Everett Elementary in Lake Forest, to provide soy milk, but her son brings his lunch and sits at a table where no children drink milk. "The principal and the nurse have been truly amazing," she says.

LaDonna Redmond, president of the Institute for Community Resource Development, a Chicago-based nonprofit that encourages healthy and organic nutrition in the city, also has a son with a milk allergy. She says all schools should offer soy milk. Some parents lack the necessary information about food allergies and do not recognize the symptoms in their children, she says.

"When you don't have good health insurance, like some parents in the city, you don't have access to doctors and don't find out that your kid has food allergies," Redmond says. Since students need a doctor's note to get the subsidized nondairy option, a child not diagnosed with a milk allergy is assumed to just get sick frequently.

While some schools do offer Lactaid milk, which contains the enzyme lactase to aid in digestion, Keller says soy milk is a better alternative.

"In addition to lactose intolerance, a lot of health problems are linked back to [milk]," she says. These conditions include asthma, chronic colds, eczema, migraines, digestive diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and insulin dependent diabetes.

Erik Peterson, spokesman for the American School Food Services Association, argues that cow's milk offers nutritional benefits not found in most soy milk, including calcium and vitamins A and D. "We support legislation that would allow soy beverages to be credited as fluid milk in school meals," he says, "but only if standards are established requiring products provide at minimum the same nutrients as dairy milk."

Keller says an alternative to establishing soy milk standards is to mandate schools use a soy milk brand that has nutritional value similar to milk, specifically ones that are fortified with calcium and vitamins A and D.

But there's another big obstacle to soy milk: it costs more. As part of the USDA Commodity Food Distribution Program, schools can buy dairy products at reduced prices.

To combat the higher costs of options such as soy milk, the Physicians Committee proposes that the USDA should reimburse schools for any non-dairy, calcium-fortified beverages served with school lunches.

USDA Public Affairs Specialist Suanne Buggy stresses the decision to opt for different kinds of milk takes place at a local level and that the government defines milk as cow's milk.

-- Anne Taulane is a student at Northwestern University and writes for the school's Medill News Service.


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