It’s unfair that federal child nutrition programs spend millions of dollars helping milk producers stay wealthy, while students suffer the health consequences. The School Milk Nutrition Act of 2015 that was introduced in Congress this week is the latest attempt by the dairy industry to make money from the government by keeping milk on school lunch trays. 

Milk is clearly in trouble. Americans are consuming less—and that’s making industry groups like the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) nervous.

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So they are grasping for government support. In the 2013-14 school year, more than $20 million taxpayer dollars were spent directly by USDA on dairy product subsidies that went into child nutrition programs—including school lunches—but that doesn’t include reimbursements which would be much more. And in the upcoming the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, the groups want to ensure that milk is required with each meal.  

The School Milk Nutrition Act of 2015, which was introduced on May 19, is supported by both the IDFA and NMPF, which noted in a dual news release that “from 2012 to 2014, schools served 187 million fewer half-pints of milk.” But the bill has a “solution.” Its provisions include “reaffirming the requirement that milk is offered with each [school] meal” and establishing “a pilot program designed to increase milk consumption.”  

That’s good for the IDFA and the NMPF. But it’s not good for the health of children. Passage of the School Milk Nutrition Act translates into putting an unnecessary source of calories, sugar, fat, especially saturated fat, and cholesterol onto students’ lunch trays, contributing to this country’s myriad chronic disease epidemics. 

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans show that reduced-fat milk is the seventh-highest source of calories for children and adolescents. Reduced-fat and nonfat milks get most of their calories come from sugar—lactose—which is why 1 cup of skim milk has more sugar than a serving of Lucky Charms. 

Reduced-fat milk is also one of the top 10 sources of saturated fat in the diets of Americans over 2 years of age, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease. That could prove deadly for the more than 12 million U.S. children and adolescents who are obese

Obese children have a host of heart problems, according to a recent study published by the American College of Cardiology that found obese children had enlarged and thickened hearts, as well as elevated LDL "bad" cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. 

Dairy products do not support bone health. A Harvard study in JAMA Pediatrics found that drinking milk as a teenager does not prevent hip fractures later in life. Another study published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine that tracked adolescent girls for seven years found that among the most active girls, those who got the most calcium in their diets (mostly from dairy products) had more than double the risk of a stress fracture, compared with those getting less calcium. 

There’s more bad milk news. As many as one-third of American children are lactose intolerant or have allergies to dairy milk. Dairy products have also been linked to acne, type 1 diabetes, prostate, breast, lung, and ovarian cancers, and death.  

It’s clear that milk’s risks far outweigh … well, there are no benefits of drinking milk. Milk does not contain any essential nutrients that cannot easily be obtained by nondairy milk. Soy milk is superior to dairy milk by providing key amounts of calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and protein without any of the health risks posed by dairy milk. 

Instead of promoting dairy milk, the 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act should require that soy milk—the only plant-based milk deemed "nutritionally equivalent" to dairy milk in order for reimbursement—is offered with each school meal. While the bill encourages USDA to purchase more soy milk for lactose-intolerant kids, it could do much more. Because despite soy milk being reimbursable, students must currently have permission from a guardian or doctor and there is no guarantee the school will provide soy milk due to cost. 

Until that happens, a bit of sunshine and a well-balanced, plant-based meal served with water provides all of the necessary nutrients children need to stay healthy. Leafy greens contain calcium, the sun provides vitamin D, magnesium is found in grains, tomato products are an optimal source of potassium, and beans and legumes provide protein. 

Milk money is misspent money. The 2015 Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act must do more to fund and promote plant-based beverages and foods that will provide all of the nutrients needed to the more than 40 million children who eat government-funded school breakfasts and lunches each day.

Wells is the acting director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit health organization of 12,000 doctors that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.