As the calendar flips to August, families across the country prepare to go back to school. For me, it always seems like the last days of summer are in late July, just before our fair. After that, my boys start team practices and, in a blink of an eye, they’re back in school. My oldest is a senior this year, and as I look back on the last 12 years, I am amazed at the influence school has had on him.

It’s not just about the learning aspects of school, although that will shape his life forever. It’s also about the friendships he has built with his classmates, along with the values and lessons he has learned through the relationships he has built with his teachers. It’s the parents who watched him grow up along side their own children, and the coaches who shaped his mind while they were shaping his athletic skills.

The school cafeteria has also played an important role in my children’s lives. Often at the dinner table, I can recall them talking about their favorite and not-so-favorite school lunches, what the conversation was around the school lunch table, and whether they got seconds that day or got a cookie and extra milk instead. Memories were made around those school cafeteria tables. At the same time, lifelong eating habits were established.

Benefits of Dairy Fat

In 2012, the U.S. changed its School Lunch Program guidelines to remove fuller fat milk from the school menu, citing concerns about rising obesity in our youth. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite the fact that obesity in America’s youth has tripled since the late 1970s, with one in every five children considered obese. While obesity is a real issue, our nation’s leaders failed to recognize the difference between good fat and bad fat when they made the decision to move away from fuller fat milks.

Since 2012, new research has come out to show that dairy fats are not linked to heart disease or other adulthood diseases. In addition, continued research has documented the important role that dairy fats play in childhood brain development. Fuller fat milk and flavored milks also have a better mouth appeal than their lower or nonfat alternatives, which can turn young children away from consuming milk.

Data has documented a substantial decrease in school milk sales since 2012, with one survey on 63,000 schools showing a 2 percent decline in school milk sales since the new requirements were released. Since milk still has a place on the school lunch tray, the 2 percent decrease in milk sales doesn’t even take into account the amount of milk added to the tray but never consumed. Schools report significant increases in discarded milk since fuller fat milks were removed.

Lifelong Habits Start in School

Studies have also shown that students build lifelong milk-drinking habits in schools. Essentially, if they like drinking the milk at school, they are likely to drink milk at home and are likely to continue drinking milk as an adult. With skim milk and flavored skim milk not appealing to many students, fewer kids are building those lifelong habits that are so essential to their overall health and development.

Fortunately, efforts are underway to bring back fuller fat milk into the school cafeteria. Last year, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that 1 percent flavored milk would be again be allowed under the National School Lunch Program. In Pennsylvania, more than 300 schools added that option to their menu after the announcement, which resulted in increased sales during the 2017-18 school year.

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Tom Marino from Pennsylvania introduced the Whole Milk Act, HR 5640, which would amend the National School Lunch Act to allow schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program to serve unflavored whole milk. The bill hasn’t made it out of committee yet but is gaining support. Other legislators have also introduced bills to bring back fuller fat options and encouraged the USDA to use their authority to do so.

We Can Play a Role

As students head back to school this year, those of us who are parents can take an active role in making sure our schools are offering a variety of milk options. Reach out to your school food service department or to your school board and find out what options are available. If your school district has not added 1 percent flavored milk back on the menu, encourage them to do so. If you want resources supporting the benefits of fuller fat milks, your local dairy checkoff program can help with that. Visit their website at www.americandairy.com to find more information.

In looking back over the past 12 years, I am so grateful for the influences that school has had on my children. I am thankful for the friendships they have established, for the teachers and coaches who have guided them, and for the life lessons and habits they have learned there. As dairy advocates and advocates for our children, we need to make sure drinking milk remains one of those lifelong habits that are encouraged in our schools.

Getting fuller fat milk options back in school is the best way to do this — not only because of the appeal they have, but for the role they play in childhood brain development. Remember, we can all play a role in making sure this is happening — both at the national level and in our local schools. Do your part by calling your local school district before the kids head back to school.

Jayne Sebright is the Center for Dairy Excellence executive director.