TCS Daily

Dairy, Dairy Quite Contrary

By Radley Balko - August 2, 2004 12:00 AM

Last May, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy held a news conference with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) an activist group. Leahy and CSPI hyped a new CSPI study lamenting that "schools are filling their vending machines with junk food," and touted a bill co-authored by Sen. Leahy and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) that would put public school vending machines under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Any school not abiding by USDA recommendations would lose funding from the federal school lunch program.

In that press conference, Leahy called attention to the alarming childhood obesity problem, which he blamed in part on "children filling up on soda before lunch," and schools that "sell our children's health to the highest bidder on a sodas contract."

The Vermont senator has an easy solution to the problem: He wants kids drinking more milk.

"Twenty years ago children consumed more than twice as much milk as soda; now they drink twice as much soda as milk," Leahy said at the press conference. "This is a huge problem, particularly for girls -- the teenage years are critical for building up a woman's lifetime supply of calcium."

For emphasis, Leahy added, "let's get vending machines that sell fresh milk, fruits and vegetables in our schools." He left out how cash-strapped public schools might pay for new vending machines equipped to store and dispense milk and fruit, items more perishable than soda and processed foods. Perhaps that will be addressed in a later bill.

Leahy is also behind the recent Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, touted in a Leahy press release with the header, "Bill Includes New Leahy Provisions to Keep Milk on School Lunch Trays." The release says Leahy fought to "keep milk on the menu," that the bill will "codify requirements that school lunch programs continue offering milk," and quotes Leahy saying that providing alternatives to junk food "like choices between different types of milk and fresh vegetables" will help fight poor nutrition and childhood obesity (an interesting dichotomy, echoed later when the release states that federal lunch programs are important to both "fight against childhood hunger" and "reverse alarming trends toward greater childhood obesity).

Leahy's provisions also authorize schools by Congressional fiat to serve milk throughout the day, "regardless of soda exclusivity contracts."

At least this time Leahy designated where to send the invoice -- to U.S. taxpayers, of course. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the proposal will cost $487 million over the next ten years.

If you're not a hardened federalist, perhaps these matters don't concern you much. Leahy after all is merely aiming to ensure that kids drink less soda, and more milk. And if he's tying the restrictions to a school lunch program already run by the federal government, what's wrong with ensuring that those lunches are healthy?

Well, for one, there's at least some debate that milk is the panacea Leahy claims it to be. In fact, the aforementioned Center for Science in the Public Interest -- the very group that held a press conference with Leahy to tout the vending machine bill -- includes milk and dairy products on both its "best" and "worst" lists of children's foods. In fact, CSPI is moving to ban 2% and whole milk from all public schools in the state of Wisconsin. The group took issue with language in a state school nutrition bill that called for schools to offer milk in "a variety of fat contents," (per the dairy industry's suggestion) language awfully similar to Leahy's call for "choices between different types of milk."

Even all of that wouldn't be so bad if it were clear Leahy were truly acting out of concern for "the children" and not out of allegiance to Vermont's dairy industry. It isn't so clear.

Just as Leahy is pushing more servings of dairy onto school lunch menus and into school vending machines, he's also sponsoring price support legislation that will drive up the cost of milk everywhere else.

Last June, Leahy and Sen. Jim Jeffords introduced the "National Dairy Equity Act," which would "establish regional boards with the authority to require processors to pay a higher price for Class I milk," -- that's industry jargon for the kind of milk you, I, and all of those thousands of obese and/or hungry and /or malnourished children get at the grocery store. These boards would be authorized to establish minimum (but not maximum) regional prices for milk, effectively severing the dairy industry from what Jeffords and Leahy call "the volatility in the marketplace," but what most of the rest of us might call, "the free market," or, alternately, "lower prices for milk consumers."

It's a typical federal government boondoggle, in which consumers are forced to pay higher prices so that laggards in a protected industry can stay in business. Except in this case, it's particularly egregious, because it comes from a politician who introduced bills both one month earlier and nine days later in which he lamented the health crisis afflicting America's children, and proscribed milk and dairy as part of the solution.

I hate to question the integrity of a United States senator (okay -- not really). But if Pat Leahy really believes milk will make America's children healthier, why is he making it more expensive for them to drink it?

Radley Balko is a policy analyst with the Cato Institute.


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