Civil rights groups, including Al Sharpton-led organization, urge USDA to fix ‘dietary racism’ in school lunch programs

Twenty-eight civil rights and health care groups announced Tuesday they have requested that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) address “dietary racism” in national school lunch programs, raising concerns to the federal agency about forcing millions of minority children to drink cow’s milk without allowing them a healthier alternative.

In a letter to the USDA’s Equity Commission, the groups said the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) only incentivizes dairy milk, a policy they called “inherently inequitable and socially unjust” because children of color are more likely to be lactose intolerant — meaning they cannot fully digest sugars in dairy and can suffer from adverse effects after consumption.

The NSLP covers 30 million children in 100,000 schools across the U.S., a program the civil rights groups said children of color are historically overrepresented in.

“If Black lives matter, so does our health and nutrition, but the National School Lunch Program has consistently failed children of color,” said Milton Mills, a Washington, D.C., urgent care physician who has researched the topic, in a statement. “Either schoolchildren drink the milk they’re given and suffer in class while they’re trying to learn, or they go without a nutritionally significant portion of their meal.”

The letter was signed by leading national groups such as Progressive Democrats of America, the Maryland chapter of the NAACP, Switch4Good, the Center for a Humane Economy and the National Action Network Washington Bureau, which was founded by civil rights leader the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The USDA reimburses schools covered under the 76-year-old NSLP if they provide fluid milk during meals, which does not cover soy milk or other types of organic milk. Dairy milk must be served with every meal.

The federal agency does allow a nutritional substitute, but that requires a written statement from a student’s parent or guardian and schools must notify the state of a substitution. A written doctor’s note may also be required, according to the civil rights and health organizations, which, they added, most families cannot secure.

“It is patently discriminatory to require a doctor’s note for a nearly ubiquitous condition,” they wrote in the letter. “Black, Native American, Asian and Latino kids are being punished for their race and heritage.”

According to the civil rights and health groups, 80 percent of Black and Latino people, more than 90 percent of Asians, and more than 80 percent of Indigenous Americans are lactose intolerant, compared to 15 percent of White people.

They estimated that millions of minority children could be affected in the classroom because of the USDA policy, urging the agency to allow soy milk, a federally recognized nutritional product, as an official substitute in the NSLP.

“It is hard to imagine a more inequitable and socially unjust USDA practice than the force feeding of milk to [minority] children in our schools,” the letter reads.

“Until children of color are properly provided for in the USDA-funded NSLP, the ‘And Justice for All’ posters that the agency requires participating public schools to display in their lunch rooms is simply empty rhetoric as injustices are visited on millions of underserved children each day,” they added.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.