Nearly two dozen health and social justice groups are challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over requiring lactose-intolerant children in the National School Lunch Program to drink cow’s milk – or go without.

The groups – including the National Urban League, National Action Network Washington Bureau, NAACP’s Maryland State Conference, Switch4Good, Coalition for Healthy School Food, Women of Color for Equal Justice and the Latino Political Avenue – have asked the USDA Equity Commission via open letter to recommend nutritional alternatives, such as soy milk, which the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recognized as a nutritionally equivalent beverage in 2020.

The letter notes that lactose intolerance –  the inability to digest dairy products without unpleasant side effects, like diarrhea, nausea, bloating, and cramping – disproportionately impacts children of color, who also are overrepresented within the National School Lunch Program. 

The program currently requires schools to serve cow’s milk with every meal in order for schools to be reimbursed, the organizations say.

“In short, the USDA is implementing a National School Lunch Program that forces cow’s milk on children throughout the public school system,” the signers note. “These children are left with only two unjust options: either drink the milk they are given and suffer intestinal discomfort as they struggle to learn in classrooms following their lunch period or go without a nutritionally significant portion of their meal.”

A spokesperson for the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service told Lady Freethinker that they were “reviewing records to confirm whether we have previously received this letter.”

“The USDA appreciates the importance of ensuring children who cannot consume cow’s milk have access to fluid milk substitutes, particularly given the disproportionate rates of lactose intolerance among communities of color,” the agency said.

The agency added that schools providing lactose-free milk options do not currently receive additional federal reimbursement, which would need to be established by Congress.

“Generally, program operators may offer fluid milk substitutes in accordance with the requirements found in program regulations,” the USDA said.  “This includes obtaining a request from a parent/guardian or medical authority, and ensuring the substitute beverage meets nutritional requirements.”

The organizations seeking alternatives say the doctor’s note for children who want to bypass the milk cartons puts an “undue burden” on the program’s families, and he program’s implementation therefore amounts to dietary racism — defined as systemic, structural inequities surrounding food and nutrition that disproportionately and unjustly impact people of color. 

Requiring milk also contributes to waste, with one study reporting 45 million gallons of milk proffered through the program – with an associated cost to taxpayers of $138 million – are tossed each year.

“Kids are getting sick by the millions, with untold effects on learning and well-being,” the letter states. “And they are tossing unopened containers of milk in the garbage where they contribute to massive amounts of food and fiscal waste each year.”

The organizations are urging the equity commission to conduct an investigation and also shift policy to make dairy-free alternatives more accessible – and to reimburse schools for providing those alternatives –  in order to create a more equitable nutrition program and learning environment, according to a press release.