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Championing dairy milk for British children on World School Milk Day

4 min read

It is no coincidence that as milk schemes are squeezed, levels of child malnutrition increase and obesity soars.

With World School Milk Day today, school meals and child nutrition are in need of public support, it is time to reinvigorate the Great British institution and historic Labour initiative of free school milk.

In 1946, Clement Attlee’s Labour government introduced the School Milk Act, which provided children in schools with free milk to better nourish our nation’s children. After decades of Tory toying and thatcher’s snatching, the scheme has been reduced from giving milk to all pupils under 18 to just being subsidised for a limited number of primary school children. It is no coincidence that as schemes like this – and others to reduce poverty and inequality – are squeezed, levels of child malnutrition increase and obesity soars.

While it is a statutory obligation for schools to offer milk to their pupils every day, not all schools are aware or able to deliver on this

All children in England, Wales and Scotland under the age of five are eligible to receive a free 1/3rd pint of milk through the Nursery Milk Scheme (NMS), provided they attend an early year setting such as school or nursery for two or more hours a day.

Additionally, all five to 11-year old children in UK schools are eligible to receive subsidised milk through DEFRA, covering the costs of the European School Milk Scheme. Children can only enjoy either scheme if their education setting opts into the schemes, which too often is not the case. For the NMS the uptake is around 30 per cent, this worsens for the School Milk Scheme (SMS), which has an uptake of around 20 per cent.

With a lot of misinformation flying around, it is important to remember exactly why milk is so important for growing bodies. Milk is one of nature’s superfoods, and non-dairy alternatives don’t come close to offering the nutritional content of that from the cow.

While milk is hydrating, it doesn’t just give its drinkers liquid. Milk is jam-packed with calcium, zinc and protein, all essential nutrients for growing children. Young people need milk to grow, its minerals are vital in boosting the body’s bone formation during childhood and adolescence. Calcium helps to build and maintain strong bones, as well as helping the heart and muscles function at an optimal level. Gaps in calcium and other key nutrients that are essential for a healthy development of children can have a negative impact in the longer term.

Plant-based beverages do not have the same naturally occurring nutrients as real dairy milk and instead must be fortified with additional vitamins to imitate cow’s milk. Vital nutrients are naturally found in dairy milk, and unlike non-dairy alternatives they are not packed with additional salt, sugar and stabilisers. It is important that plant-based beverages disclose their nutrition to explain what they contain and what they lack relative to real milk, to help consumers know how they can fit into their dietary preferences and make informed decisions instead of following misinformation.

Much is made about the impact of the dairy industry on the environment, but we should also remember that cow’s milk is made here in the UK, is free of airmiles, supports British farmers, contributes enormously to Britain’s economy and keeps the public healthy.

While it is a statutory obligation for schools to offer milk to their pupils every day, not all schools are aware or able to deliver on this. More needs to be done to promote these milk schemes so that all education settings opt in, therefore ensuing that our children receive the free and healthy milk to which they are entitled.

On World School Milk Day, it is important to celebrate the historic role that school milk has played in supporting the nation’s health since the 1946 School Milk Act. We also need to tighten up the school milk scheme so that our children can benefit from free, nutritious milk now and in the future.


Daniel Zeichner is the Labour MP for Cambridge and Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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