EVANSVILLE, Ind., Nov. 11 (UPI) -- A growing number of America's dairy farmers are pushing to allow whole milk back in public schools.
The grass-roots effort coalesced in September when a group of farmers and advocates started a petition asking President Donald Trump, Congress and other federal institutions to let students have the 3.5 percent milk.
As of Sunday, more than 11,500 people had signed the online petition.
"I think a lot of people still don't know that schools can't serve whole milk," said Sherry Bunting, who started the petition on Change.org.
Whole and 2 percent milk were federally banned from school lunches in 2012. The move came during the Obama administration at a time when lawmakers were focused on fighting childhood obesity.
Congress had passed the Hunger-Free Kids Act two years earlier. The sweeping legislation was meant to ensure children received healthy meals at school. One of the ways it did that was by requiring that school lunches adhere to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Those guidelines say that children should drink only 1 percent or fat-free milk.
Two years later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture codified that law into rules for schools participating in the National School Lunch program, and whole and 2 percent milk was removed from the menu.
Under current law, whole milk only can return if the dietary guidelines are changed. Those guidelines are updated every five years by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services.
An advisory committee is meeting to review the latest scientific evidence before the next set of guidelines are released in 2020.
Bunting plans to deliver the petition to that committee in hopes it will spur reconsideration of the position against the full-fat milk.
She and other grass-roots supporters who have united behind this cause doubt the committee will budge, however.
The U.S. government has been urging adults and children to consume low-fat or fat-free milk since the 1980s as a way to reduce overall fat consumption. Leading health and medical institutions agree.
The American Heart Association recommends that children switch to 1 percent or fat-free milk after age 2, as do the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and others.
"It's largely the obesity epidemic that drove whole milk out of popularity," said Dr. Frank Greer, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and former chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition.
"There were studies that showed the easiest way to reduce fat in a child's diet was to replace whole milk with low fat," Greer said.
There's logic behind that, he said. With its high fat and nutrient content, whole milk was historically marketed as something that could help children gain weight. In the 1940s and 1950s, many American children were malnourished and underweight.
"I have a poster on my wall that says, 'I'm up to weight, I drink milk,'" Greer said. "It's from 1949, and it was put out by the dairy industry."
Today, society is faced with the opposite problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 20 percent of America's children and adolescents -- some 13.7 million -- are obese.
"If you are overweight or obese, it just makes sense to use low-fat milk," Greer said. "But has putting low-fat milk in schools done anything to reduce the obesity epidemic? It hasn't appeared to.
"As far as I know, there are no studies that have shown that doing away with whole milk has had a significant impact on the obesity epidemic."
What the law has done, industry experts say, is reduce overall milk consumption.
Since whole milk was banned from schools enrolled in the National School Lunch program in 2012, the volume of milk students consume at school has dropped some 11 percent to 403 million gallons in 2018 from 452 million gallons in 2012, said Paul Bleiberg, vice president of government relations at the National Milk Producers Federation.
That decline is not just happening in schools. Americans overall are drinking less cow's milk.
Milk sales dropped by $1.1 billion between 2017 and 2018, from $14.7 billion to $13.6 billion, according to Dairy Farmers of America.
As sales fall, dairy farms are going out of business at record rates. Milk prices have been too low for most dairy producers to earn an income since 2015, according to industry experts. Some 2,500 farms closed in 2018, according to the USDA.
The industry blames the decline, in part, on the push to reduce fat consumption -- along with the rise in plant-based alternatives.
These combined headwinds spurred a small group of dairy farmers and advocates in Pennsylvania to start the grass-roots effort to return whole milk to schools.
Nelson Troutman, who owns a small dairy farm in Pennsylvania, was among the first to take action. In 2018, he came up with a plan to educate consumers about his milk.
"People think whole milk is 100 percent fat," Troutman said.
After having many conversations with people who were shocked to hear that whole milk contains just 3.5 percent fat, Troutman devised a plan to advertise his whole milk as "97 percent fat-free."
He went to industry groups and processors to pitch the idea. But they were not on board, he said.
So in December 2018, he painted the slogan, "Drink whole milk, 97 percent fat free,' on the side of a round, plastic-covered hay bale and placed it near a busy highway.
Other nearby farms followed suit. The fledgling group started meeting, and as the group grew, it started a website on which they post stories and data about milk.
Soon farmers all over the country started using the slogan.
"There's a 97 milk sign in Alaska," Troutman said. "It's spreading fast."
After meeting with Bunting, a whole milk advocate who also lives in Pennsylvania, they started a pushing to return to whole milk in schools. Bunting later started the petition.
Lawmakers also took notice.
In January, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., introduced a bill in the House that would allow whole milk again in schools. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Education and Labor.
In June, Sen. Pat Toomey, also from Pennsylvania, introduced a similar bill in the Senate. No action was taken on that bill.
"Milk is the No. 1 source of nine essential nutrients in the diets of our students, but if they don't drink it, these health benefits are lost," Thompson said in a statement announcing his bill.
"Milk consumption has been declining in schools throughout the nation because kids are not consuming the varieties of milk being made available to them."
Farmers and industry groups support the legislative effort.
"We feel the debate on milkfat is a debate we can win," Bleiberg, with the National Milk Producers Federation, said. "The conversation is moving in the right direction. It's just going to take some time."