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Intolerance beyond just lactose: how dietary racism shapes school lunches
Vegetarians and lactose intolerant students have few options in the lunch line, and the milk lobby wants to keep it that way
March 20, 2023
The alarm rang in my ears as I struggled to rise from bed. I picked up my phone from under the pillow, and my eyes widened at the sight of the time displayed on the faded black background. It was 7:20, and I still hadn’t gotten ready for school. As I scrambled around the house looking for my backpack and school supplies, I missed the most important thing: eating breakfast.
Everyone, including myself, was scrambling to get to homeroom by the time I arrived at school. I had no problem forfeiting breakfast because RV provides free school lunches. By fourth block, I was starving. I went down to the cafeteria and waited in line to get a veggie burger, but by the time I arrived, there were none left. I asked the lunch lady if there were any more vegetarian options available, but she said no.
At least I found comfort in the fact that I could fill up with something to snack on, but many of the options — including milk, cookies and ice cream — include dairy. Lactose intolerant students like me are left with few alternatives to fill up.
This experience is not unusual, as vegetarianism appears to be on the rise in America, particularly among young people, who are more likely to go meatless. As of last 2022, vegetarians ranged between 10 and 15% of the population in America, and those percentages were likely higher among people under 35. Vegetarianism and veganism can have deep cultural roots, and the influx of different populations to America, particularly from India or southwest Asia, have created greater calls for more options.
Coinciding with this rise in vegetarianism is a growing concern over lactose intolerance, which many experts claim is also becoming more prevalent. However this rise in prevalence isn’t something new, it is only more noticeable, largely through the more recent availability of lactose-free alternatives which, according to Business Wire, have reached revenues of $700 billion between 2016 and 2020. The inability to digest lactose, a sugar naturally found in milk and milk products (like cheese or ice cream), can lead to bloating, diarrhea and gas, and is today found in 65% of the world’s population. Experts estimate that 30 to 50 million Americans classify as lactose intolerant, but there are certain populations that are much more susceptible to lactose intolerance. While white Americans (those descended from white northern Europeans) have the lowest rates (ranging from two to 15%), South Americans (and those who descended from South Americans) range from 50 to 80%, African Americans hover around 80% and American Indians and east Asians (and their descendent groups) range from 90 to 100% lactose intolerant.
While vegetarian options and lactose alternatives appear to be growing in restaurants — even in fast food, such as the impossible Whopper at Burger King or the numerous milk alternatives at Starbucks, for example — there is one place where vegetarians, vegans and those with lactose intolerance can find few options: the school cafeteria.
This is largely because of the standards for children’s lunches, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which allow for few alternatives or options that deviate from these standards. And these practices, which are archaic and dated, contribute to a form of discrimination known as dietary racism.
Dietary racism is the assumption that the food the majority of people consume affects all cultures and races in the same way. In American society, dairy is considered an essential part of a healthy diet, a claim that is strictly regulated at the federal level by the USDA. Despite the fact that a growing number of ethnicities and cultural groups have demonstrated digestive issues with lactose, dairy is ingrained in American culture as a superior health food at the expense of minorities’ well-being. This inclination stems from racial ignorance, since not all consumers share the same diet and nutritional needs.
Dietary racism has been an integral part of our lives since the 1992 introduction of the Food Guide Pyramid by the USDA, but its origins lie in World War I, when there was a dairy surplus and the USDA Dairy Division began to market cow’s milk. The USDA achieved its goal of increasing demand by creating educational milk campaigns targeting children and adolescents that promoted milk and other dairy products as the number-one food source of calcium compared to vegetables, which do not provide as many nutrients. Millennials may remember the “Got Milk?” campaign, which featured celebrities holding a glass of milk and sporting a “milk mustache,” followed by nutritional facts about the benefits of dairy products.
Today, the dairy lobby (a collective of dairy companies in the U.S. that lobby government officials to create laws and protections that benefit dairy farmers) continues to be one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the U.S. Groups in this industry primarily focus on protecting the rights of American farmers as well as keeping dairy products on store shelves and in schools across the country. According to Eliana Miller with Open Secrets, “Individuals and PACs associated with the dairy industry made $5.1 million in federal contributions during the 2020 election cycle.” As of 2022, $6.99 million was made from dairy lobbying because of the aggressive marketing from The National Dairy Council towards the 92,000 dairy farms in the United States, with annual cash receipts of $20.4 billion due to 9.14 million cows producing 173 billion pounds of milk, as provided by The Washington Post.
The USDA’s Code of Federal Regulations’ Special Milk Program mandates that schools must offer students at least two different options for fluid milk, but if a school chooses to offer one or more substitutes, then the school has to bypass the milk companies’ strict regulations to keep milk in schools at the federal level. It is a complex process in which non-dairy beverages are allowed on a case-by-case basis, despite the USDA’s emphasis on considering ethnic and religious preferences when planning and preparing food. Although it is stated that variations are allowed to meet individual needs such as lactose intolerance, the complicated process prevents students from having an additional lunch option to choose from.
To complicate this notion even more, schools do not benefit from providing a substitute. The USDA reimburses schools only if they provide cow milk for students’ meals, which means that dairy must be served with every meal to meet the standards for reimbursement. Dairy is not necessary to the human diet, and according to Vasanti Malik, a nutrition research scientist from Harvard Medical School, “eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of green leafy vegetables and nuts can better help you get the calcium and protein you need rather than relying too much on dairy.” Yet milk companies lobby and reimburse schools to consider selling their product, with a person approved by the school participating in the Program is prohibited from restricting the sale or marketing of fluid milk.
Two RV students, K’thia Richards and Paris Daniels, who identify as people of color, expressed their concerns about lactose intolerance and how it affects their lives. Both students explained that they discovered their lactose intolerance at a young age, and had family members with the intolerance as well.
“Before I drink something that’s going to make my stomach upset, I have to think about where I have to be in the next hour or something, because I’ll have to be in the bathroom,” said Daniels. “So I have to make sure I’m not doing anything important.”
As a result, both girls choose not to consume dairy products at school.
“I don’t drink milk at school,” said Richards. “I substitute it for oat milk.”
“I feel like schools should start serving more options like almond milk,” said Daniels. “Because I like almond milk.”
Both students felt that more students would be inclined to eat school lunch if RV provided milk substitutes.
In August 2022, 28 civil rights and health care groups wrote a letter to the USDA’s Equity Commission, requesting that they acknowledge dietary racism in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The incentivization of dairy-only products directly harms minority students by making milk substitutions mostly inaccessible.
“If Black lives matter, so does our health and nutrition, but the National School Lunch Program has consistently failed children of color,” said Milton Mills, an urgent care physician from Washington, D.C., told The Hill. “Either schoolchildren drink the milk they’re given and suffer in class while they’re trying to learn, or they go without a nutritionally significant portion of their meal.”
The National School Lunch Program has consistently failed children of color
— Milton Mills, urgent care doctor
Ms. Freer, RV’s Sodexo Manager, said that RV does not participate in the Special Milk Program, which means that they do have the ability to provide milk substitutes.
“No one has ever asked for anything, any sort of substitute, but after having this conversation [students] will definitely see a substitute there, as long as we’re complying with the government and able to provide that,” she said. “That’s something that I can touch base with the nurse on.”
She also added that the NSLP is antiquated and should be updated. In the example she gave, she used Hawaii and its culture.
“If you go to Hawaii, for instance, although there’s similar things, their school lunch program is based off of their culture – which is based off of fresh food…based off of the land itself,” Ms. Freer said. “So it’s not something that can’t be done.”
The USDA attempts to have a very basic level of nutrition when it comes to its programs, and as a result, the organization does the minimum of what it believes a student needs in order to learn and grow. The USDA cannot cater to every student, but many students need this program because it may be the only meal they receive all day. Although its guidelines are arguably ignorant of the dietary needs of ethnic groups, they are also partially determined by lobbying.
Despite what its name suggests, dietary racism is more than just racial ignorance — it also has direct links to capitalism.
“If you have connections in the government or if you vote someone in, of course if you have a business, they’re going to make sure that you benefit from supporting them. It’s not always about race,” Ms. Freer said. “It can be about money.”
It’s not always about race. It can be about money.
— Paris Freer, Sodexo manager at RV
While the phrase “dietary racism” is commonly used to represent this issue, it would be better represented by a term such as “dietary discrimination,” which has a more direct connotation. The phrase “dietary racism” implies that the discrimination is perpetuated solely by racist ideals, rather than by the milk industry’s strategic and persistent lobbying.
The various angles on dietary racism convey that it’s an important conversation to engage in, especially when it will continue to impact newer generations. Lactose intolerance is prevalent in most of the world’s population and the systematic integration of dairy products into federal nutrition has posed an issue for people of color for decades. Not everyone has northern European genes that would allow them to consume dairy products safely, and the normalization of consuming dairy as a health food can be attributed to colonization and tactical lobbying.
Students can advocate for dairy alternatives for their schools by talking with their Sedexo manager. Proponents of change can also consider supporting the organization Switch4Good which advocates for more awareness and alternatives to dairy in public spaces.
After her interview, Ms. Freer confirmed that RV will “provide dairy alternatives for students, because there is clearly a need here.” It’s not yet clear what specific alternatives to cow’s milk will be offered, but students can expect them soon.
“If there’s anything that the students want, all they have to do is voice their opinion or ask, and we always provide whatever the students want within reason,” Mrs. Freer said.