School milk comes in many flavours for the 21st century

More than 160 people from 36 countries are attending an international conference on school milk, organized by FAO and funded by the International Dairy Federation. "The aim of the conference is to bring people interested in setting up school milk programmes together, so they can share ideas instead of all sitting at home and reinventing the wheel," said FAO Commodity Specialist Michael Griffin. In many countries, both developed and developing, school milk programmes have been hit or closed by reduced government support.

Milk at school gives children added energy and nutrients, it also helps them develop the healthy habit of drinking milk (FAO Photo 9428)

The idea for the International Conference on School Milk grew out of a question sent to FAO's Dairy Outlook Email List about new packaging for milk for schoolchildren. "The response and the interest expressed in this subject was international," said Griffin. "At every meeting I went to more people approached me about it." Then, at a dairy meeting in Iceland, the Manager of the Milk Producers Association in South Africa offered to host an international conference on the subject. The conference is financially supported by FAO, the South African Milk Producers' Organization and the Swedish packaging company, Tetrapak. In addition, there is a conference registration fee.

One aim of the conference is to look at other forms of funding - subsidies by dairy producers or marketing at full cost, for example - that could give today's children a healthy glass of milk as part of their school day. "School milk programmes have both a nutritional and an educational purpose," Griffin said. "They give children added energy and nutrients, and they also train them in the healthy habit of drinking milk."

School milk around the world

Delegates at the meeting will learn about school milk programmes from around the world. In Portugal, for example, programmes have been running for 20 years and reach more than 99 percent of schoolchildren. Portuguese boys and girls are given semi-skimmed ultra heat-treated (UHT) milk with a chocolate flavour at morning break. The programme is co-funded by the European Union and the Portuguese Government.

In Thailand, free milk in schools has played a key part in promoting milk consumption in the country as a whole. In 1984, per caput milk consumption in Thailand was just two litres a year and dairy farmers marched to Bangkok to protest that they could not sell their produce - 127 tonnes of raw milk a day. In 1997, per caput milk consumption was up to 18 litres a year, a generation of milk-drinkers was out of school and the country had a functioning dairy industry.

In Australia, two states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, have started school milk programmes in response to a variety of factors, including declining milk consumption, surveys that show that many children get less calcium, Vitamin A and riboflavin than they need, and the fact that milk only represents 4 percent of drinks consumed at school. The NSW programme is funded by the state's dairy farmers and supported by every sector of the dairy industry. The programme includes the provision of free refrigeration to school canteens so that milk is always fresh and icy cold - the way children like it.

Milk is good for growth and for later life

Milk is good for children in many ways - providing energy and protein for healthy growth and development as well as essential nutrients for bone and teeth formation. A report prepared for the conference says that scientific evidence is also building up to show that calcium, magnesium and potassium - which are all present in considerable amounts in milk and milk products - have a positive effect on blood pressure and help reduce the risk of hypertension.

The report also says that connections are being made between some of the nutrients present in dairy products and a reduction in the risk of dental caries and osteoporosis in later life. A two-year study on English schoolchildren showed that the only difference in the diets of children without dental caries and those with dental decay was that the first group was consuming twice as much cheese a day as the second group.

Educational games and competitions, cartoon characters and promotional gifts are all part of the school milk programmes of the 90s. Everything from T- shirts and sun-hats to inflatable Jersey cows are used to appeal to children. In most schools, plain white milk is just one of a range of flavours on offer - and banana, chocolate and strawberry are often the more popular.

29 October 1998

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