How the Dairy Industry Disguises Advertising as School Nutrition Education

If you are a regular person, you want to know what foods to eat to stay healthy. If you are a dairy farmer, ice-cream maker, or butter seller, you want to sell more product. As a salesperson you must create a demand, or sense of need, for the product you are selling. If you are the dairy industry, how better to sell milk than by selling it as an essential part of the human diet? But while you might take the word of a dairy farmer or company with a grain of salt, the United States government is a trusted source for many, supposedly having  the publics best interest at heart. So what better messenger for the dairy industry than the U.S. government?

For more than 100 years the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been the leading trusted authority on what’s in the public’s best interest to eat.

The first ever USDA publication on nutrition was in 1902 .

The first publication by the USDA on nutrition was in 1902 and since they have been the public’s trusted authority on what’s good to put in their mouths. I was in school in the 1990s and the message I remember over all others is that: Milk does a body good. While the USDA claims to be keeping up with the latest research and public health marketing, it  is actually an advertising arm of the dairy industry.

When I was in school milk was required along with every meal and the most heavily pushed part of school lunch. The main message I received in school about nutrition is that foods belong into groups and it’s important to eat from all the groups, but some more than others.

USDA Food Pyramid when I was in school in the 1990s.

But which foods belong in which group can be tricky because over the course of its existence the USDA has promoted anywhere from four to eleven food groups.  Milk products  have always been their own group.

USDA nutrition recommendations have changed over the last 100 years and it has promoted between 4 to 11 food groups at a time.

The dairy industry has had its hand in nutrition education and the public health message that is promoted for quite some time. While they have always claimed to be involved in this sector for public good, they don’t shy away from acknowledging their marketing activities are also to create increased dairy sales. From the National Dairy Council of California website:

“The 1920’s and 30’s brought California Dairy Council’s first big strides in nutrition education, beginning with the “Dairy Products for Health” campaign targeting PTA parents. It was a time when many children had rickets and other nutritional deficiencies. “We gave people something of real value without expecting anything in return,” said Greene of his efforts. “We did this in the firm belief that when facts about our products reached the people in the form of education, we would reap our rewards in increased use of milk and other dairy products.”

The start of this relationship seemed innocent in the 1930s when a Los-Angeles dairy farmer would travel to schools with a truck carrying a live cow. They were teaching kids how to milk a cow and where cow milk comes from. But they were also gaining a strong foothold in nutrition education with the USDA that has continued to this day.

One of the evolving graphics aimed to teach the public health eating habits. My Pyramid encompassed USDA’s nutrition recommendations between 2005-2011 and includes dairy products as one of the five main food groups.

The dairy industry’s brilliant marketing plan has led to the milk group, sending the message that cow milk is  required for human health. To the many people who don’t consume dairy, it appears strange how readily people believe the human body requires milk from another animal survive. But marketers have sold a story and the public has bought it. If people believe they need to consume milk to be healthy, then there is a guaranteed customer base for everyone involved with producing and selling dairy.

Today the National Dairy Council continues to be the strongest influencer of children’s nutrition education as they literally write the book! Even knowing what I know, I was still a bit shocked at how pervasive, bold, and deceptive this industry advertising is in the school materials. Last fall I asked my daughter’s first grade teacher (who also teaches second graders in the same class) about what she does for nutrition education and she allowed me to borrow her Teacher Guide and a copy of the readers she gives students.

These materials, she tells me, are provided free to teachers by calling in.

The reach and persuasion of these materials created by the dairy industry should not be taken lightly. According to the Dairy Council of California’s website, in one year (2007-2008 school year) the:

“Dairy Council reached just over 2 million children with classroom programs and Mobile Dairy Classroom; just over 3 million adults in health care settings and parent outreach in schools.”

But just what is the Dairy Council telling kids and their parents to eat? My review of the Teachers Guide and student reader revealed the basic message of the entire curriculum is to recognize that there are “food groups”, that one of these groups is milk, and that all food groups must be eaten together for a meal to be healthy. Not only is the basic message completely biased towards advertising cow milk products, they also make the most basic nutrition info misleading. For example, here’s one page out of the student reader that accompany their curriculum. It says “Calcium is a nutrient in milk and yogurt. Protein is a nutrient in hamburgers and beans.”

But while milk may contain calcium, many other foods contain calcium as well and all food contains protein. Still, milk is given its own group and the information received by students is reinforced with materials aimed at parents like this letter below.

In this note to parents they are told to make sure healthy meals contain a food from each of the groups. According to this advice, kids should be consuming milk, cheese, yogurt, or butter with every meal despite consumption of these foods being linked again and again to the nastiest diseases plaguing humanity. While the dairy industry has ramped up its in-school advertising program, childhood and adult obesity rates have reached their highest levels in human history.

It’s time to get industry advertisements out of schools and provide children with truthful nutrition information that will truly do the body good.

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