The U.S. Department of Agriculture got into a little trouble this week when an interoffice newsletter encouraged USDA employees to participate in the growing nationwide practice of observing “Meatless Mondays,” i.e, abstaining from meat one day a week to promote personal health and the health of the planet. Within just a day or two, strenuous objections from the cattle industry and from Iowa Congressman Steve King led to a hasty retraction by the agency:
“U.S.D.A. does not endorse Meatless Monday,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. The newsletter, which covered topics like the installation of energy-efficient lights on the Ag Promenade and recycling goals, “was posted without proper clearance,” the statement said.
That incident illustrates why I’m not terribly optimistic, to say the least, about the success of a petition recently initiated by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) seeking to remove all milk (not just the always-controversial flavored milk) from the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
The federal government spends more money on dairy products than any other food item in the school lunch program. But it’s time to get milk out of school lunches. Abundant research shows milk does not improve bone health and is the biggest source of saturated (“bad”) fat in the diet—the very fat that Dietary Guidelines push us to avoid. So PCRM recently petitioned the USDA to stop requiring milk in school lunches.
The nutritional rationale for including milk in school meal programs was based primarily on its calcium content. Milk was presumed to promote bone health and integrity. Time and again, this has proven false. Milk-drinking children do not have stronger bones than children who get their calcium from other foods.
But whatever you think of the merits of the science (and I’m not weighing in here), the almost-humorous “Meatless Monday” incident demonstrates the degree to which USDA will put the demands of agricultural producers ahead of any other goal. For that exact reason, many have long decried the fact that USDA is charged with running the school lunch program in the first place. Since its founding in the 1940s, the lunch program has had the dual — and often starkly conflicting– missions of feeding school children healthful meals while financially supporting the agriculture sector, primarily through commodity purchases.
If that potential conflict of interest doesn’t convince you that the PCRM petition is doomed, you might also remember that the ubiquitous, well-funded and highly effective “Got Milk?” campaign is administered by USDA itself.
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