With one day to go until Congress plans to call it quits for the year and members head home for the holidays, the House got down to pressing business on Wednesday, using its precious remaining time to pass legislation to bring whole milk back to America’s school cafeterias.
An emergency aid package to fund the wars in Ukraine and Israel hung in limbo, stymied by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. Bipartisan talks on how to tackle a surge of migration at the U.S. border with Mexico showed no sign of yielding a breakthrough. And lawmakers were facing a daunting time crunch to act on a dozen federal spending measures when they return after New Year’s Day, at which point they will have just eight working days to avoid a partial government shutdown.
But on Wednesday in the Republican-controlled House, which has reached new heights of dysfunction and paralysis this year, none of that was on the agenda. Instead, sandwiched between a vote to formally authorize a months-old impeachment inquiry against President Biden and a resolution condemning university presidents for their testimony about addressing antisemitism, the House churned out arguments for and against the merits of full-fat dairy for children.
“I urge my colleagues to support this bipartisan, bicameral and utterly fantastic bill,” said Representative Lloyd K. Smucker, Republican of Pennsylvania. “And let’s not skim over the facts here: Whole milk is truly the cream of the crop in delivering these key vitamins and nutrients to growing children.”
The measure, which would undo a ban on high-fat milk in schools that has been in place for over a decade, passed 330 to 99.
Recent research largely supports the thrust of the bill. But the wholesome-sounding measure also had a sharp political subtext, like most legislation these days.
In 2010, as Michelle Obama, then the first lady, agitated for policy changes to combat childhood obesity, nutrition rules for schools participating in the federally assisted meal program were updated to include a ban on whole milk amid health guidance that children should avoid it. Republicans denounced the changes then and, pressed by the milk lobby and dairy-producing states, waited for an opportunity to reverse them.
So on Wednesday on the House floor, their ardor for the nutritional virtue of whole milk could scarcely be contained. Leading the charge was Representative Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who is the chairwoman of the Committee on Education and the Workforce, who kicked off the debate by arguing that denying children milk was tantamount to ruining Christmas.
“The nutrients in whole milk, like protein, calcium and vitamin D, provide the fuel Santa needs to travel the whole globe in one night,” Ms. Foxx said. “Whole milk is the unsung hero of his Christmas journey.”
“If whole milk is a good option to fuel Santa’s extraordinary Christmas Eve journey, then why isn’t it an option for American schoolchildren in their lunchrooms?” Ms. Foxx demanded, posing the question to lawmakers arguing to keep the ban.
Unamused by the puns and resolute in his opposition, Representative Robert C. Scott of Virginia, the top Democrat on the education panel, argued that whole milk was less healthy than the lower-fat alternatives.
“Whole milk contains far more saturated fat, cholesterol and calories than fat free and low fat milk,” he said.
Other lawmakers determined to keep red-capped single-serve bottles of milk out of schools argued that what Congress really should be doing was promoting nondairy alternatives.
“Soy gives the equivalent of the nutritional values as whole milk,” said Representative Troy Carter, Democrat of Louisiana.
Ms. Foxx replied that there was no issue with dairy alternatives in schools — just don’t call it milk.
“We’re not excluding soy drink,” Ms. Foxx declared. “It is not milk. It is a plant-based food. It isn’t milk, so you can’t call it soy milk. You can call it soy drink.”
The debate inspired some lawmakers to reminisce about milk drinking in their own families. Representative Mary Miller, Republican of Illinois, said full-fat milk had done her children’s bodies good.
“I raised my seven children on whole-fat milk, and they’re all within normal weight,” she said.
The debate provided a few moments of levity, including a number of groans and eye rolls in response to lawmakers really milking their floor time.
But its timing ahead of a four-week break, given the long list of unfinished business Congress is about to leave behind, was too much for some lawmakers.
Representative Seth Moulton, Democrat of Massachusetts, posted an image on social media of a milk carton featuring a picture of Speaker Mike Johnson stamped “Missing in Action.”
“Instead of providing aid to our allies or funding the government, today Congress voted on whether or not to [checks notes] Deregulate milk?” Mr. Moulton wrote, alongside cow and cowboy emojis. “Like, sure, but can @SpeakerJohnson please let us vote on important stuff too?”
He voted in favor.