Sunday, February 10, 2013

Spoiled Milk

Since the start of the school year I've been working part-time as a nutrition educator funded by the SNAP-Ed program. SNAP-Ed is the educational arm of the food stamp program, providing nutrition education to those who receive SNAP benefits. In addition to providing programming and resources in food banks and other adult ed venues it extends to schools as well, with school eligibility determined by the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches (a direct reflection of household the income levels, whether or they are actually SNAP recipients). This was not my first foray into federal nutrition programs, after all, I worked with the National School Lunch Program and WIC during my dietetic internship, but last month was the first time I felt the direct impact of Washington decision-making on my daily life.

Remember the fiscal cliff? The term which permeated the media around the new year has since been supplanted by the dreaded sequester.  Somehow amidst the frenzy I missed reports on the last minute measures that were taken by Congress to avoid the cliff, which it turned out would affect my work. The greater fiscal cliff actually contained several mini cliffs, including "the dairy cliff," described in this news byte:

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In addition to all budgetary concerns, our nation was on the brink of a 100% + milk price hike. As 2012 drew to an end and the 2008 Farm Bill was about to expire without the passage of a new one, Senate and House agriculture chairs and committees worked to successfully pass a nine month extension. The resulting bill provided little reform but did address the milk price debacle. Civil Eats reported:
The so-called “dairy cliff” that could have seen milk prices rise to $7 per gallon because of an automatic reversion to a 1949 government price protection system was averted, but not in a way that support the actual dairy producers.  Instead of using the language from the Dairy Security Act that was brought up earlier this year, the bill merely extended the current Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program that stabilizes prices while benefiting milk processors.  

How was the MILC extension funded? By unexpectedly slashing the 2013 SNAP-Ed budget by $110 million.  I learned this when I returned to work following winter break and found that the unexpected cuts to this year's budget reduce the number of hours I can teach and the amount of time I can put into collaborating with school staff around nutrition education. While this presents an immediate challenge to my state of employment, the real losers here are the SNAP eligible who are now denied nutrition education. The Public Health Institute issued this statement in response to the cuts:

“SNAP-Ed helps low-income Americans make healthy choices on a limited budget, reduces their risk of chronic disease and obesity, and optimizes the economic and nutritional value of SNAP benefits. SNAP-Ed programming has proven that investment in nutrition education can enable SNAP to effectively address the dual challenges of improving nutrition and food security among low-income populations. This funding cut to the program undermines and weakens a critical component of our nationwide efforts to promote healthy eating and prevent chronic disease just as investments to prevent obesity and promote healthy eating are beginning to show results.

So milk prices will remain artificially low for consumers and oddly, dairy farmers barely benefit from this deal. The government is heavily invested in dairy prices and the MILC program provides a safety net for farmers when milk prices dip too low or cost of feed rises too high (as it has this year due to the drought). But at what cost?

When considering this situation it's hard not to ponder the role of dairy in our national consciousness.  Dairy has long warranted its own food group, justified its high calcium content rather anything inherently "dairy" about it despite the fact that milk remains one of the eight most common allergens and causes digestive complications in the 40 million Americans who are lactose intolerant.  True, it is fortified with vitamins A & D and is a staple in the American diet but it has fought to remain that way through effective marketing strategies. The dairy industry benefits from many federal nutrition programs, including the NSLP and WIC programs. The dairy council, at least in Washington State, is closely tied with SNAP-Ed and positions itself to partner with schools by creating nutrition education materials and offers a free $20 allotment to anyone teaching nutrition. It even uses the domain name which is conveniently similar to - the official website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How is it that the dairy council has positioned itself as a nutrition authority, telling the public how to eat?

While it's true that I don't consume dairy products, I am not entirely opposed to it. But I do think dairy's role in the American diet is highly problematic for the reasons mentioned and for many more. When dairy farmers are struggling and the high price of milk costs our nation its nutrition education and disease prevention programs, it's time to rethink our model. Hopefully the 2013 Farm Bill will allow for some much-needed reform. We have until seven and a half more months to figure it out.


  1. Brilliant! I'm rethinking my dairy intake right now. I never considered the whole dairy thing to be a huge manipulation but now I see it (weird, since I know the 'eat beef' and 'the other white meat' campaigns are all about manipulation). What are your feelings on soy-based products? Or, rather, what do you use as a dairy replacement (I'm thinking milk in my coffee, cereal, baking)?

  2. I think soy is a wonderful food, but most soy in the US in genetically modified and I am weary of its health effects and fearful of its environmental impact. Buying organic soy products ensures that it is non-GMO since we currently have no labeling requirements (yet!). I think dairy can be fine for some people and is a healthful food but quality makes a big difference. (Also do we really need 3 servings a day? I think not.) Brands like Organic Valley (a farmer-owned co-op) are highly reputable. Replacements abound for those who seek them - almond milk, coconut milk, and many others are now on the market. Some of these are highly processed though and may alarm people trying to stick to whole foods only. Coconut oil can be used in baking, with the caveat that it is liquid at warmer temps. I try to seek out recipes that were designed to be vegan or dairy free to make sure ratios are properly converted when substitutions are made. But honestly, I don't bake much!

  3. Great Post and nice article.Thanks for sharing.