As Americans grow increasingly unhealthy and overweight, Republicans have better places to aim their fire than the Biden administration’s necessary proposal to limit sugary chocolate milk consumption in schools.
While Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy spars with the White House on the debt ceiling, the No. 3 lawmaker in GOP leadership is waging another crusade. House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, whose Upstate New York district attracts big money from Big Dairy, is leading the charge against changes in federal nutrition standards that threaten chocolate milk in public school cafeterias.
“Elise Stefanik, Republicans Push Back On Biden’s War On Chocolate Milk,” ran the weekend headline from Breitbart.
The paper outlined the GOP effort to thwart a new proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) aimed at reducing childhood sugar consumption. In February, the USDA issued a new rule, with one of its proposed options threatening a ban on flavored milk in elementary and middle school with a limit on chocolate and strawberry flavors in high school.
“This approach would reduce exposure to added sugars and would promote the more nutrient-dense choice of unflavored milk for young children when their tastes are being formed,” reads the agency proposal.
Federal law requires the USDA to develop K-12 nutrition standards in line with the nation’s dietary guidelines. The agency recently placed a cap on added sugars, limiting them to no more than 10 percent of calories. A government report from May last year found about 17 percent of calories in school breakfasts and 11 percent of calories in lunches were added sugars. Flavored milk was the primary culprit, with fat-free flavored milk contributing “29 percent of the added sugars in breakfasts.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill are taking a stand against the new guidelines, framing them as an episode of federal overreach. Stefanik proposed a bill with nine Republican cosponsors to counter the bureaucratic measure and pledged Thursday to “do everything in my power to stop these efforts.”
“When New York City Mayor Eric Adams tried to ban chocolate milk, I led the successful effort to fight back and won on behalf of families and farmers,” Stefanik said in a press release. “Now, Joe Biden is embracing this Far Left radical proposal to ban chocolate milk.”
Pennsylvania Rep. Glenn Thompson, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee and is a cosponsor of Stefanik’s legislation, also framed the debate as an item in the culture wars.
“First it was your gas stove, and now it is your child’s school meal. President Biden’s proposal to ban chocolate milk is another example of brazen government overreach,” Thompson told Fox News. “I’m proud to stand with America’s dairy farmers against Biden’s intrusion into our school cafeterias. Chocolate milk is a calcium-rich childhood favorite, and it is here to stay!”
Thompson’s payout from the agriculture industry totals more than $939,000, according to OpenSecrets. The Pennsylvania congressman is the top recipient of political contributions from Big Dairy, having raked in more than any member in either chamber to the tune of $75,000.
When did it become conservative to protest responsible federal spending? The new rules to reduce consumption of additive sugars in schools are proposed at a time when nearly 1 in 5 American children are categorically obese. Childhood obesity has become such a problem that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently proposed new recommendations to tackle the crisis, featuring a cocktail of pharmaceuticals and extreme surgeries often reserved as a last resort. The AAP’s primary funders also happen to be major pharmaceutical companies, who appear eager to capitalize on a new generation of lifelong medical patients.
The high rates of child weight inflation spell disastrous implications for the future of chronic disease and infertility. Children today are already witnessing the consequences of obesity with pediatric cases of type 2 diabetes doubling at multiple hospitals during Covid lockdowns, and it wasn’t just their blood sugar that spiked uncontrollably. One CDC study found that the rate of BMI increase in a cohort of children doubled under school closures. It turns out sending kids home, where many relied on processed food to cope with lockdowns, wasn’t the best thing for children’s health. Big Food was excited to rake in profits, with sales of packaged products spiking at the same time. And Big Pharma can see the green in sick care: chronic diseases alone cost Americans $1.1 trillion in 2016, a number that is only going up as their neighbors are getting sicker. To put that into perspective, the entire U.S. GDP is only $23 trillion.
If Republicans really want to fight the culture war, they should take on major food industries that are pumping children with high levels of a substance found to be more rewarding than cocaine.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) let the food industry get away with marketing ultra-processed cereals saturated with sugar as “healthy” for years before finally doing something about it. Now the corporate food manufacturers have deployed their shock-troop lobbyists to Washington to keep it that way.
Federal food programs, however, are still subsidizing a childhood diet laced with excess sugar. About 60 percent of American schoolchildren are enrolled in either the National School Breakfast Program or the School Lunch Program, according to the American Action Forum. The federal milk mandate requires schools to provide cow’s milk for every student on assistance. That’s a lot of milk in K-12 cafeterias, with the average cup of chocolate milk containing “up to 3 teaspoons” of added sugar.
Why are Republicans more interested in protecting chocolate milk than attacking the industry that’s making us sick? That’s a real culture war. If Republicans want to gripe about federal nutrition standards coming from D.C. to begin with, that’s fair. But as long as American tax dollars are being spent on cafeterias, there should be some interest in spending it responsibly.
Stefanik claims “flavored milk is one [of] the best ways for kids to get essential dairy nutrients for growth and development.” Except it’s not. Children can get their vitamin D from playing outside and their calcium from unflavored milk as well as almonds, fish, leafy greens, and fresh oranges to satisfy a sweet tooth.