Today marks the first day of school for thousands of kids here in Minnesota. It also is a renewed opportunity for the dairy industry to meet the nutritional needs of kids who don't get enough milk or calcium in their diets.
Our daughter is a senior in college. So I've forgotten the chaos and angst that goes with the first day of school. This year, though, my wife and I are hosting an 8th grade exchange student from Guadalajara, Mexico.
I was thrown into the maelstrom of Middle School Open House last Thursday as Mariana, her aunt and I nudged our way through the hallways to meet teachers, pre-pay school lunch and purchase her gym suit. If it wasn't pure chaos, it came close. When you get nearly 1,000 middle schoolers and their parents in one place at one time, all looking for class rooms and lockers, it's bound to be raucous.
I image school lunch is a little like this. It has to be a barely-controlled free-for-all as kids converge on the cafeteria to fill their bellies while sitting with their friends and sharing the latest drama. Eating right is the last thing on kids' minds.
Studies show that fewer than a third of middle school and high school boys and only one out of eight girls in this age bracket consume the recommended three-a-day of dairy. Virtually all girls 9 to 18 do not get enough calcium.
So anything the dairy industry can do to increase consumption will help kids inch closer to meeting their dietary needs.
A 2002 National Dairy Board study shows that improved packaging, flavored milk, and use of chilled cases and vending machines can increase milk sales 18%. That's where the dairy industry's New Look of School Milk program comes in. Launched during the 2002/2003 school year, the program is now in 9,600 schools and is feeding 5.7 million students. That's good, but the industry is only 10% of the way home with some 55 million kids attending school each day.
The National School Lunch Program (NLSP), which provides subsidized or free lunches to some 30 million students each year, is another opportunity to meet these students' nutritional needs. Yet the program has come under fire because critics claim it contributes to child obesity, in part because it forces too much meat and dairy onto school lunch trays through USDA donations.
But a new USDA analysis released in July suggests higher milk consumption by NSLP participants "likely accounts” for much lower sugar consumption because it substitutes for juice drinks and soda. While NSLP participants consume more meat and milk than non-participants, their caloric intake is not significantly higher. Having lost that battle, vegan critics of the program say more meat and dairy still contribute to higher fat and saturated fat consumption.
And so it goes. While inroads to improve kids' diets are being made, some well-intentioned and some not-well-intentioned critics continue to throw up road blocks. It's imperative that each of us do our part to ensure students of all ages get the milk their bodies need.
If your school district is not yet participating in the New Look of School Milk, go to this Web site to arm yourself with background and facts. The site even provides a calculator to show how districts will profit by getting with the program. Feeding kids better—while reducing costs—is a win/win for everybody.
--Jim Dickrell is editor of Dairy Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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