Opinion: Black children are sick at school and not for the reason you think!

During my formative years in the public-school food system, the meals served sometimes constituted my entire daily intake. I didn’t fully grasp the significance of school food choices and their impact on my health until adulthood. As systemic racism became more evident throughout my personal life and career, I began to pinpoint places for needed progress in my community. 

It’s one thing to say Black Lives Matter, but it’s quite another to actually do something that benefits Black lives, Black health, and Black children. Offering plant-based milk at school is one way to effect tremendous change in Black lives, as many Black children are lactose intolerant. As an adult, I’ve greatly improved my overall digestive health and quality of life by addressing my lactose intolerance. Promoting cow’s milk in schools at the exclusion of other options is a food justice matter, as it embodies dietary racism—the white majority’s assumption that their food choices affect Black people the same way.

How can we end dietary racism in our public schools? First, we must admit to the problem:

Due to the dairy industry’s outsize influence on the USDA’s National School Lunch Program, each of the four billion meals served in U.S. public schools every year must include cow’s milk to receive federal reimbursement. Cow’s milk is among the most common and severe allergies for children under 16 and is not nutritionally necessary for children of any age, yet the USDA makes accessing healthy alternatives exceedingly difficult for students.

In the adult population, an estimated 70%–80% of African, Native, and Mexican Americans are lactose intolerant, as are over 90% of those of Southeast Asian descent. Black and Indigenous students, along with other students of color, are overrepresented in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price lunches to students whose household incomes qualify. Students eligible for the program are likely to rely on foods offered at school to meet a substantial portion of their nutrient and calorie needs, meaning lactose-intolerant children must either suffer digestive distress or not drink cow’s milk—one of their few opportunities for nourishment.

Hunger leads to poor academic performance, but so do the symptoms of lactose intolerance, such as fatigue, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and itchy skin. One study found that school grades were significantly lower among students with abdominal pain or headaches compared with those of their peers. A study of adolescents explored the prevalence and influence of lactose intolerance in young people with chronic fatigue syndrome. Compared with milk-tolerant subjects, milk-sensitive participants experienced considerably decreased health and quality of life with milk in their diets. Importantly, six months on a milk-free diet reversed these effects. The study concluded that lactose intolerance is common among young people with chronic fatigue syndrome, but by removing milk from their diets, we can prevent it from worsening their symptoms.

How does the white majority address dietary racism? With more dietary racism:

Federal law covers two scenarios in which soy milk may be substituted for cow’s milk: The student has a disability (USDA considers lactose intolerance a disability for this purpose) documented by a physician’s note, in which case a school must provide an alternative, not necessarily soy milk. Or the student has a special medical or dietary need as documented by a note from a physician or a parent, and in this case, a school may (but is not required to) provide a substitute that meets federal nutrition standards, which is fortified soy milk.

Requiring a doctor’s note places an undue burden on the parents of Black and Indigenous children and other children of color, who are less likely to have health insurance and more likely to report not seeing a doctor due to cost than white parents. Additionally, visiting a doctor typically requires a parent to take time off work and remove the child from school, disruptions that are more likely to impact the parent’s earnings and the child’s meal accessibility that day in families eligible for the National School Lunch Program.

For me, a question arises: What is food equity in public schools? Is it a meal program that best serves the white majority at the expense of racial minorities, or is it a program that addresses food insecurity for all participating children, most of whom are not among the white majority and do not benefit from their food choices?

Ronnika A. McFall, APR, is a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, and serves as public relations director of Mercy For Animals, an international animal protection nonprofit. She inspires news stories in mainstream media to help build support for and advance Mercy For Animals’ mission to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system.