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School Lunch Milk Cartons Take A Hit In New Ad Campaign

Forget the school vending machine fights. An anti-cheese group says that innocent-looking carton of milk on lunch trays is the real culprit for our children's weight woes.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit group known for bucking conventional nutrition wisdom, advocates for vegan alternatives to dairy. Earlier this year, it unleashed a campaign against milk-based products, showing people grabbing their excess fat and attributing the weight to cheese. Some folks called the campaign "obnoxious and offensive," but with the latest ad tactic, the group seems to have toned things down a bit.

This time, PCRM is using wholesome-looking families to target school lunches. It wants to replace calcium supplied by milk (popularized for children's diets in order to stave off rickets) with beans, sweet potatoes and figs. Its latest initiative, just launched in the Washington, D.C., metro area, charges milk with unnecessarily upping the saturated fat content of student diets.

PCRM's "Let's Really Move" theme riffs off of first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity. It features kids like Sarah, from Georgia, pictured on a poster saying, "Let's move cheese out of my school lunch."

Neal Barnard, who founded PCRM in 1985, says the group wants schools to provide more beverage options to children and eventually abolish milk from schools altogether.

"The milk requirement is entirely cultural and business-based, and it has nothing to do with health," Barnard says. "The dairy industry is an extremely powerful lobby. And parents and kids think it's normal to drink milk. But it's not biologically normal; it's just culturally normal."

In fact, milk has been a nutritional requirement of the National School Lunch Program since the program was founded in 1946, although students can opt out of receiving a carton of milk on their lunch tray with a medical exemption. And cheese products are frequent flyers, too, as a cheap source of protein. Think about how often cheese pizza and grilled cheese sandwiches show up on the menu.

Turns out pizza is the second greatest source of calories consumed by children aged 2 through 18, according to the USDA. No. 1 source of calories? Grain-based desserts; and that's true for all age groups.

For its part, the National Dairy Council says Americans aren't getting enough milk, and dismisses the PCRM campaign as a publicity stunt. "They would love to see milk banned because they're an animal rights group and they want everyone to switch to a vegan diet," council spokesman Greg Miller tells The Salt. He says dairy is a cheaper and better-tasting way of getting nutrients into school lunches, adding that under the PCRM proposal, "kids are going to have to eat a lot of broccoli; they're going to have to eat a lot of kale. I don't know about you, but my kids are not big on kale."

This isn't the first time that milk's star billing on the school lunch tray has been challenged. Questions were raised about milk's fat content during the school lunch program overhaul in 2010, but it ultimately stayed on the revamped school lunch menus, primarily in its nonfat iteration.

Still, with an upsurge in the popularity of diets that eschew dairy and millions of Americans battling their bulge, PCRM's message may find some sympathetic ears.

Or maybe it'll have to wait until vegan cheese really does taste like cheese.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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