Existing School Dairy Milk Scheme and Proposed Plant-Based Alternatives in the UK
As a part of the UK School Food Plan, around £7 million of taxpayer’s money is spent annually on providing children age 5 and under access to free dairy milk in school. Dairy milk has often been cited as a critical component to a child’s healthy diet, and this program directly supports the UK dairy industry. In 2019, a coalition of national health and nutrition organizations published the ‘Healthy Beverage Consumption in Early Childhood’ statement, supporting the claim that dairy milk is a critical component in the diet of infants and young children. However, the UK government has also been under recent pressure from lobbying groups to ban this free dairy milk in primary schools and make the switch to plant-based milk in conjunction with the World Plant Milk Day campaign. This contradicting advice has come from opposing physicians’ groups pushing back against the guidelines supporting the health of dairy milk, claiming dairy milk’s unhealthy qualities and environmental impact outweigh its benefit.
Provision of school meals is a direct way to support children’s health, especially in more food insecure areas. The controversy of providing free dairy milk for school children is primarily based on the desire to protect the health of schoolchildren. The aim of the school milk subsidy scheme is to “encourage children to consume milk and milk products and develop a lasting habit of doing so” (UK Government, 2021). Therefore, any change to this scheme will also have an effect on the milk market, as children tend to drink more milk per head than adults, but also as dietary habits established in childhood persist into adult life.
The Labour government of 1946 originally began the campaign to give students under the age of 5 in UK schools free dairy milk as a nutritional supplement. Cow’s milk has long been cited as a good source of calcium, iodine, and potassium (Healthy Eating Research, 2019).
Those in favor of continuing the free milk program, such as the National Food Union also cite the role of farmers in the program, saying that the free milk allows children make a connection with local farmers and food producers in the UK. School milk also represents a valuable segment of the national dairy market; dairy being the single largest agricultural sector in the UK. For some farms, reduced milk demand would lead to job losses and negative impacts on local economies. Any interruption to the free milk program would require significant research beforehand: as to how it would impact the livelihoods of UK dairy farmers and the resulting milk supply chain.
However, in analyzing the support for the free dairy milk scheme, there are notable conflicts of interest that arise. For example, the 2019 ‘Healthy Beverage Consumption in Every Childhood’ statement that supports dairy milk and suppresses plant-based alternatives is backed by the American Heart Association, an organization that receives National Dairy Council Support. This means they have a direct financial interest in keeping the dairy milk program running, even despite research which may contradict the health of dairy products for kids.
This opposing research is coming from lobbying groups such as Plant Based Health Professionals UK, citing research that dairy milk actually increases the risk for prostate cancer, heart failure, and bone weakness (Plant Based Professionals UK, 2020). This opposition also states that milk contains fat at a level above what schoolchildren need, possibly contributing to obesity that may disproportionately affect predisposed ethnic minorities (Plant Based Health Professionals UK, 2020).
The secondary argument of switching away from dairy milk in schools is the environmental impact that it carries. The world’s 13 largest dairy companies producing the same greenhouse gas emissions as the entire UK, and each liter of milk produced uses 628 liters of water (Haas, 2019). Plant-based milks are often cited as having a significantly lower land input, water input, and greenhouse gas emission output than dairy milk (Haas, 2019). These statistics demonstrate how a shift away from predominantly dairy-milk consumption in schools could support the health of the environment and schoolchildren alike.
Operations such as World Plant Milk Day are actively lobbying to replace dairy milk in schools with plant-based milks. Plant milks are also no longer considered an unconventional alternative. UK plant milk sales have grown by nearly 30% since 2015, and the global plant milk industry is estimated to be worth about 11 billion (Mintel Team). The existence of such shifts establishes a vested interest in plant-based alternatives and the increasing consciousness of consumers about the health and impact of their food.
Prior to Brexit in 2020, this school milk program was funded by European Union subsidies. After Brexit, the UK committed to making up the subsidy themselves, continuing the program for the 2020-2021 school year. It bears noting that the European Union has made no amendments to their free school milk programs based on pressures from plant-based advocacy groups. The European Parliament has actually made moves to suppress the market of plant-based milks in 2020, by voting to accept proposals that ban the use of words like ‘yoghurt substitute’ or ‘almond milk for alternative products that contain no dairy. Such proposals demonstrate the EU’s desire to continue protecting its dairy industry over reforming its place in society.
Plant-based milk is becoming an increasingly accepted alternative in the UK, praised for its lower environmental impact and health benefits. However, making the switch away from providing free dairy milk in schools is controversial based on competing health claims from many civil society actors. The dairy industry, one of the biggest in the UK, is also posed to suffer if faced with the loss of the program, which would dramatically decrease its demand. The UK may require a more comprehensive understanding of both health claims of dairy milk, in addition to a greater knowledge of financial impact on the dairy sector before making any sort of switch to plant-based milk in schools.
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