Surplus and subsidies
Let’s hop back to WWI – the global event that catapulted America’s century-long milk surplus into existence (5). The US government started sending canned and powdered milk to soldiers overseas, and dairy farmers responded by ramping up production. They invested in the latest equipment and even abandoned other forms of farming to dedicate their work to the war effort.
While the war ended, the milk production did not – creating a surplus and dangerously low milk prices. Throughout the 1930s, dairy farmers staged several strikes and unionized to demand a fair price for their milk (2). To appease these farmers, the government created federal programs to artificially drive demand.
The first of these programs included the 1940 Federal Milk Program for Schools and federally subsidized milk advertising under the Works Progress Administration. In 1946, President Truman passed the National School Lunch Act, which mandated each lunch include between one and a half to two pints of whole milk.
In essence, since adults weren’t buying milk, the government solution was to force it onto their children. To this day, children who participate in the National School Lunch Program – which offers free or low-cost lunches to students of low-income families—are required to take a carton of dairy milk (6).
Billions of dollars
Despite the government-funded campaigns to convince nearly every demographic of American to drink more milk, the surplus continued throughout the decades. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter allowed $2 billion federal dollars to be funneled into the dairy industry over the course of four years(7).
As in the past, dairy farmers ramped up production to take advantage of this government subsidy, which resulted in yet a greater surplus. This soon-to-rot milk was homogenized into ‘government cheese’, and held in vast underground storage units across 35 states.
Not only was this a waste – it was also expensive. In 1982, a New York Times reporter stated that the federal government would spend $40 to $50 million transporting this surplus dairy, and another $40 to $50 million to store it (8).
By this time, the government was spending $2 billion in taxpayer dollars annually to support the dairy subsidy. The solution was twofold: give the nearly moldy cheese to low-income citizens, and funnel money into heavy dairy marketing.
Modern marketing (and extra cheesy pizzas)
Introducing the Dairy Checkoff Program – an industry-funded federal program that has a profound impact on what Americans choose to consume. Prompted by the dairy industry, Congress created the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board in 1983 whose sole purpose was to promote dairy products by way of marketing and ‘nutritional education’ (9).
To fund this effort, dairy farmers agreed to pay a small fee based on the weight of the milk they sold. This program is responsible for some of America’s most craveable (and least healthy) food products including the Pizza Hut’s Stuffed Crust Pizza and Taco Bell’s Quesalupa and succeeding Quesarito.
The Board has worked with dozens of companies to promote dairy-heavy menu items – the result is 40 percent more cheese on Domino’s pizzas, more milky drinks at Starbucks, and larger cheese slices on Egg McMuffins (10, 11, 12).
In addition to these corporate collaborations, the checkoff program is also responsible for the pro-dairy slogans we can never forget – ever heard of Got Milk? or that ‘milk does a body good?’. It’s all for promotion’s sake.
The illusion that chocolate milk is a recovery food is also an industry-supported idea. The studies that demonstrated a positive correlation between athletic performance and chocolate milk were funded – at least in part – by the dairy industry and specifically designed to favor dairy. Scientists ensured the industry’s desired result by comparing chocolate milk to water or a nutritionally deficient sports drink (13).
Of course, most constituents don’t read beyond the fold, let alone analyze scientific studies. People see the professional athlete sporting a milk mustache when they flip the page in a magazine, or they scroll through the headlines and see that a new study confirms the benefits of chocolate milk in teen athletes, and they’re reminded to add milk to their grocery list.
Milk has become so ingrained in our culture that we cannot see past the smoke and mirrors to what milk really is—a century-long problem the government cannot spend enough money to get rid of, no matter how much cheese Pizza Hut stuffs into its crust.
Looking back at the history, we can see that milk isn’t a health food – it’s just a very heavily funded and well-marketed product. If that ancestor had decided to suckle a dog instead of a cow, we all might be drinking dog milk; or if there was a mass surplus of soda in the early 1900s and the soda producers balked loudly enough, cola could have been today’s pre-workout beverage.
We believe milk is healthy because that is what we have been told, and there has been little to question this – until now.
Let’s start asking questions. Why do adults still drink milk? Why do we obtain it from an entirely different species, let alone a being that is not our mother? Why do we continue to guzzle down a drink that leaves us bloated and uncomfortable hours later? It simply does not make sense.
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