By Kelsey Thalhofer

Capital Press

A petition to make milk an optional part of school lunches ignores the drink’s nutritional value and is rooted in a vegan agenda, health experts say.

The petition, filed July 19 by Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine — which calls itself a national, nonprofit health-advocacy organization — claims that milk does not contribute to bone health and that its sugar and fat content can lead to childhood obesity.

It suggests calcium-fortified soy milk, rice milk and fruit juice as more nutritional alternatives for school lunches, and encourages the USDA to recommend that Congress amend the National School Lunch Act.

The USDA has received the petition is reviewing it.

“Milk is its own component because of the irreplaceable package of nutrients it provides,” Anne Goetze, registered and licensed dietitian at the Oregon Dairy Products Commission, said.

Though many foods are rich in calcium, milk allows the body to easily absorb the nutrient, Goetze said, and it’s dense in calcium. It would take 2.5 cups of broccoli, or 4 cups of pinto beans, to replace the calcium in just one 8-ounce glass of milk. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 2-3 glasses per day.

A PCRM spokeswoman acknowledged the group’s outspoken advocacy for veganism, vegetarianism and anti-animal agriculture, and said that less than 7 percent of its 150,000 members are physicians.

“This kind of petition fits with other things they’ve tried in the past,” Goetze said. The group has also launched a campaign against hot dogs and offers a meal plan for those interested in starting a vegan diet.

“The reason we do these petitions is because as kids become increasingly unhealthier we need these changes to happen faster,” Susan Levin, registered dietitian and PCRM director of Nutrition Education, said.

The PCRM petition said telling kids to drink milk is “the promotion of an ineffective placebo.”

Levin confirmed that the petition was born of the group’s “evidence-based standpoint” of veganism and vegetarianism. She said that offering calcium-rich vegetables in schools would provide an incentive for kids to make healthier lunch choices.

According to the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, U.S. kids get 65 percent of their calcium from dairy products.

Goetze said it’s difficult for anyone to get the recommended 800-1,200 mg of calcium each day without consuming milk.

“We tend to look at nutrient density,” Goetze said. “Dairy foods have a lot of nutrients per calorie.”

A USDA ruling that went into effect July 1 allowed schools receiving federal food program reimbursement to serve only 1 percent or fat-free plain milk or fat-free flavored milk, ruling out 2 percent and whole milk.

Milk sold in schools makes up 7 percent of total milk sales in the U.S., according to David Pelzer, vice president of industry relations and communications at Dairy Management Inc.

Though the petition has created a buzz around the value of milk in school lunch programs, Pelzer said the dairy industry isn’t concerned.

“The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is just trying to drum up attention,” he said.

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