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Nearly 30 civil rights and health groups urge USDA to combat 'dietary racism' by including soy milk options in public school lunches

Photo by Sean Rayford for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Nearly 30 self-described civil rights and health groups have written a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking it to combat "dietary racism" by including soy milk as an alternative to cow milk in its National School Lunch Program.

The letter claims that "fluid milk" from cows, which the USDA considers a vital component of "wholesome meals," is not a viable option for many black, Hispanic, and Native American school children who experience lactose intolerance at much higher rates than whites.

“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, a Washington, D.C., urgent care physician. “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 group Switch4Good, which signed the letter and with which Mills is affiliated, calls privileging cow milk over soy milk an example of "dietary racism." On its website, Switch4Good claims that anywhere from 70 to 95% of minority students are lactose intolerant, compared to just 15% of whites. Therefore, by focusing only on cow milk and ignoring the alternatives, "the lactose-persistent white majority is making nutritional decisions for the entire population without taking into account the harmful effects dairy has on BIPOC communities. This is dietary racism."

In addition to the lactose problem, the letter to the USDA also takes issue with the hoops that students must jump through in order to receive a cow-milk alternative at lunch. The USDA does compel schools to collect a note from a parent or guardian whenever a student requests a cow-milk alternative. It also states that a note from a medical professional "may be used to support a fluid milk substitution for a non-disability reason," though such a note "is not required."

"It is patently discriminatory to require a doctor’s note for a nearly ubiquitous condition,” the letter states. “Black, Native American, Asian and Latino kids are being punished for their race and heritage.”

According to The Hill, 30 million school children depend on the NSLP. The letter signees further claim that a disproportionate number of those students are racial minorities.

"It is hard to imagine a more inequitable and socially unjust USDA practice than the force feeding of milk to [minority] children in our schools,” the letter continues.

“Until children of color are properly provided for in the USDA-funded NSLP, the ‘And Justice for All’ posters that the agency requires participating public schools to display in their lunch rooms is simply empty rhetoric as injustices are visited on millions of underserved children each day,” it adds.

Other groups which signed the letter include Progressive Democrats of America, the Maryland chapter of the NAACP, the Center for a Humane Economy, and the National Action Network Washington Bureau, which was founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton in 1991.

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