Got (Anything Other Than) Milk?: School Lunches Need to Evolve

"Lunch at DC Public Schools on 10/9/12: Local Beef Burger on a Whole Wheat Bun, Roasted Brussel Sprouts, Baked Potato Fries, Cantaloupe Wedge & Milk" by DC Central Kitchen is licensed under Creative Commons

by Chester Wilson III

You hear the bell ring. A mess of sneakers, dropped calculators, and yelling cues the start of lunch. As you reach the trays of pizza and applesauce, it looks like for the hundredth lunch you’ll be skipping the drink option; you can’t have milk.

Unfortunately, this isn’t all that uncommon. With 75 percent of the world struck with the same intolerance to dairy, concerned parents and legislators are raising the question of whether it should become a requirement that schools offer a non-dairy alternative for students not willing to test what could be a very unforgiving allergic reaction.

Joseph Wagner, a social science teach at The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) thinks there should absolutely be alternatives.

“Why does the default have to be milk?” Wagner said. “Have we really not explored any other options?”

Wagner, who is vegan, is a part of the large portion of the nation who, for religious, ethical, or medical reasons, can’t consume dairy. For him, and millions of others in the nation, the school’s refusal to supply non-dairy alternative impacts how he views lunchtime.

In Chicago Public Schools (CPS), milk is the only freely offered drink with lunch. In some high schools, the option to purchase water or juice is available, but the increasing costs of these beverages trouble the parents of children with allergies, as well as vegans like Wagner.

“Certainly other options exists,” he said. “Is there no way to offer an alternative, a soy-based option, a juice, or even a water? What costs could be cut by not supplying so much milk?”

Water fountains present the next logical option for many CPS students, but while the water might be the only alternative, what sense does it make to have a fourth of the school wait, single file, in a line for a drink of water from the fountain, when everyone else gets access to an ice-cold, and easily packaged beverage? What keeps schools from trading out a fourth of their milk supply with easily transportable water, which could be poured into cups from pitchers during lunch?

As far as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is concerned, the official policy “provides schools with the flexibility to offer milk substitutes that meet federal nutrition requirements to accommodate students’ non-disabling allergies, culture, religion or ethical beliefs,” a representative said.

Unfortunately, even though the USDA’s policy offers options to people who’d rather go without milk in school lunches, the expense has CPS wary to inform parents, and despite having a policy reliant on parental request, most schools mandate that the student present a doctor-signed form before allowing them a non-dairy substitute.

CPS has already supported the inclusion of vegan and non-meat alternatives in school lunches, and it has accommodated most with a sunflower seed alternative for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They shouldn’t drag their feet on giving students another choice — one that won’t have them running to the nearest bathroom.

At ChiArts, Wagner is the adviser for Vegan Club. It meets every Wednesday in classroom 005.

“You don’t have to be a vegan. If you want to believe in the ethical treatment of animals or the betterment of the environment, you are welcome,” said Wagner.

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