Milk in Schools | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Milk in Schools

In 1924, local education authorities (LEAs) in the UK were permitted to provide children with free milk. This was the start of the movement to introduce milk to school-aged children that would continue to this day. In 2005, in a paper published in the Economic History Review, Dr Peter Atkins of Durham University reviewed the motivations behind the introduction of cow’s milk in schools during the first half of the twentieth century (Atkins, 2005). Atkins stated that the nutritional benefits of school milk were debatable, possibly even negative in those areas where it replaced other foods, but noted that the dairy industry did well, creating new markets at a time of depression (Atkins, 2005).

In 1946, the School Milk Act provided free milk to all school children. A third of a pint of milk was provided to all children under the age of 18 years until 1968 when Harold Wilson’s Government withdrew free milk from secondary schools. This policy was extended in 1971 when Margaret Thatcher (then secretary of state for education) withdrew free school milk from children over seven. This was an economic decision, not one based on a nutritional assessment of the value of milk, and for this she earned the nickname ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher’ – although many children were delighted at not having to drink the warm sickly odorous milk at school anymore!

The school milk scheme was introduced in 1977 by the European Union (EU) to encourage the consumption of milk in schools. The scheme required member states to make subsidised milk available to primary and nursery schools wishing to take part, but participation was entirely a matter for the school or LEA. The European Commission had originally indicated that it wished to abolish the subsidy because the scheme was not providing value for money. The UK did not accept these conclusions and fought hard to retain the scheme. A compromise was secured whereby in 2001 the subsidy rate was reduced from 95 to 75 per cent. The UK Government topped up the subsidy to its original level in England, up to a maximum total expenditure of £1.5 million each year. In the academic year 2003 to 2004, around one million school children in England drank 34.9 million litres of subsidised milk at a cost of around £7 million.

The move to increase milk consumption in schools gathered momentum; the School Milk Project, was set up in 1998 by the Women’s Food and Farming Union, aiming to increase the uptake of milk in primary schools. It received funding from the Milk Development Council (MDC) which was established following the re-organisation of the milk industry in 1994. The MDC was funded by a statutory levy on all milk sold off farms in Great Britain; the annual income from the levy was over £7 million. Primarily the MDC funded research and development intomilk production methods, it also funded the School Milk Project which employed ‘facilitators’ to promote the uptake of school milk through direct contact with LEAs, schools and dairy suppliers.

The charity Milk For Schools (MFS) was founded in 1994. Set up to educate the public in the field of school based nutrition, MFS is a registered member of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) School Milk Network, which initiated the first World School Milk Day on 27th September 2000. In October 2004 Dairy UK was established as a cross-industry body representing processors and distributors of liquid milk and dairy products, as well as milk producer co-operatives. In 2005 the European Union (EU) and Dairy UK joined forces with the MDC to promote milk consumption in primary schools. Schools were targeted with ‘Teacher’s Guides to Health and Fitness’ and School Milk Week commenced on 10th October 2005. Previous school milk weeks have generated over 6,000 new school milk drinkers or as Dairy UK put it “over one million new serving opportunities per annum”.

In 2008, the MDC was replaced by DairyCo following a fundamental review of agricultural levy boards by Defra. The five existing levy boards (including the MDC) were replaced by one statutory levy board, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). Its statutory purpose is to improve UK farm business efficiency and competitiveness. In 2010 DairyCo conducted a full review of in school activities and re-launched its Schools and Education programme in January 2011 which replaced The School Milk Project. DairyCo works alongside the British Nutrition Foundation (another industry-funded body) to promote milk in schools using a range of tools including web-based education resources promoting dairy products. To this end, DairyCo offers free resources and advice to local authorities and schools about milk production and dairy farming and how to introduce or increase milk provision in their schools.

This sophisticated and aggressive marketing is of real value to the dairy industry in establishing milk as a ‘normal’ commodity for regular family consumption now and in the future. The policy of introducing school milk begs the question, are the dairy industry nurturing our children? Or simply nurturing a future loyal adult consumer base?