The school-lunch program used to be considered one of the triumphs of liberalism. Should a Republican suggest trimming or altering the program in the slightest, he would promptly be denounced as an ogre determined to starve poor schoolchildren.
Among certain left-wing activists, however, this orthodoxy has gotten an overhaul: The school-lunch program is now denounced as a health-destroying racist scam that facilitates the torture of animals.
The cause of this turnabout has long been synonymous with wholesomeness in America, and today appears on the upper lips of celebrities from Carson Daly to Britney Spears. It is milk.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture mandates that schools serve milk as part of the federally subsidized lunch program, which for many school districts is the primary source of cafeteria money.
This requirement, according to pro-vegetarian groups like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, constitutes a near-genocidal act. Because there is hardly an ailment in America that is not caused by milk.
"Besides prostate cancer," an official for PCRM insists, "milk has been linked to asthma, anemia, allergies, juvenile-onset diabetes, obesity, heart disease and ovarian and breast cancer."
Indeed, one dairy critic, Robert Cohen, has written a book titled "Milk: The Deadly Poison." (Possible sequels: "Pizza: The Alien Threat" and "Apple Pie: Murder at the Dinner Table.")
"Milk," huffs a PCRM spokesperson, "is the No. 1 health hazard facing young
children and adults."
These activists want milk dethroned from its privileged place in the school-lunch program (last week they asked the USDA to begin subsidizing soy milk in schools), removed from the USDA's food pyramid and generally drummed out of American life.
This crusade is almost cute when it is a harmless pastime of the latte set, as in the ongoing campaign to get coffee shops to offer organic soy milk. But in maligning milk more broadly, dairy scourges are putting the interests of children second to their own idiosyncratic obsessions.
The Reagan administration took years of grief for wanting to define ketchup as a vegetable for purposes of the school-lunch program. In nutritional terms, anti-milk activists are attempting something much worse.
The health charges against milk are almost all false, except one: Unmodified milk is bad for children under age 1, which is why God gave us breast-feeding.
Otherwise, milk is a nearly miraculous package -- a nutritious drink that kids like. Imagine if Mountain Dew were good for you.
Milk delivers protein, riboflavin, vitamin B12, vitamin A, vitamin D and, of course, calcium, which is especially important for children and is necessary for bone formation.
Dairy products account for more than 75 percent of the calcium in the U.S. food supply.
It's theoretically possible to get it from other sources, but not likely, especially for kids. Got legumes? Sardines with edible bones?
As the report Healthy People 2000 says, "Use of dairy products constitutes the difference between inadequate and adequate intakes of calcium."
All this aside, dairy critics charge that the school-milk requirement is racist because blacks are disproportionately lactose intolerant -- roughly 75 percent of blacks compared with 25 percent of all Americans.
But most lactose-intolerant people can still, if careful, drink two cups of milk a day. And kids can already get alternatives in school, such as lactose-free or soy milk, but the cost is reimbursed by the federal government only if there's a note from a doctor.
The essential problem that groups like PCRM and its close ally PETA have with milk is that it comes from cows, which they consider maltreated and cruelly pumped full of growth hormones ("crack" for cows, as the New York Green Party put it when it agitated against milk in New York's schools a few years ago).
A more honest campaign would simply be "Free the Dairy Cows!"
Instead, the groups are trying to discredit an easy way for parents and schools to keep kids healthy, arrogantly pronouncing from the perch of their own dietary righteousness: "Let them drink soy."