“I firmly believe that the bill as drafted, House Bill 2397 as drafted, threads the needle to ensure that a voluntary action taken by a Pennsylvania school is in fact legal,” said Rep. John Lawrence, R-West Grove.
Lawrence’s bill would allow Pennsylvania schools to serve whole milk that is produced and processed in the state, and purchased using state or local money.
Lawrence argues this formula would get around federal rules that currently require skim or 1% to be served in schools.
Lancaster Farming has reported that the bill has several vulnerabilities, including the possibility that its exclusivity to Pennsylvania products could prompt retaliation by other states.
Lawrence rejected that notion. If anything, he said, other states might decide to adopt similar laws to promote their own in-state whole milk.
“In the face of the federal government’s inaction on this issue, we’re looking to take action on a state level,” he said.
The bigger risk is that schools that chose to offer whole milk would lose federal reimbursement, their main source of cafeteria funding, by offering meals that did not meet the requirements of the National School Lunch Program.
But Lawrence drew a comparison with another education-related issue — testing requirements for students.
The federal government has said it will withhold funding if states don’t comply with mandatory testing requirements, but California and Oregon have not lost money even though they allow students to opt out of the tests, Lawrence said.
“I believe that it’s a hollow threat that the federal government will withhold money from school districts to feed children,” Lawrence said.
Testing may not be an apt comparison for school milk.
States are required to test 95% of their students, but federal law both allows for testing opt-outs and creates a gray area on how states meet the 95% requirement, according to the American Federation of Teachers.
There is no such wiggle room in the National School Lunch Program.
Restoring whole milk in schools is a top priority for dairy farmers, many of whom believe skim milk tastes bad. Many farmers also reject the federal government’s dietary guidance that children consume low-fat dairy products.
The whole milk bill, along with other dairy legislation, is expected to receive a vote in the House this week.