Farming bodies and nutritionists have welcomed Independent Senator Nick Xenophon’s call for a free milk program in primary schools funded by the Federal Government.
Mr Xenophon called for an “urgent” feasibility study of bringing back the school milk program for primary students and would like a trial in his home state of South Australia.
It is one of a number of suggestions he made on Monday to help struggling dairy farmers affected by the downturn in global milk prices and said any milk program would have a “double benefit for both children and dairy farmers”.
School milk abandoned after cost blow out
The free school milk program was first introduced by the Menzies Government in 1950.
Called the Milk for School Children program it was only abandoned in the 1980s due to a cost blow out and lack of evidence of nutritional benefits.
The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) said a school milk program was a “positive step”.
“Very few children [and adults] meet the recommended number of serves each day,” a spokesperson for DAA said.
However, the association argued a multi-pronged approach to children’s nutrition was needed, where parents played a greater role and school canteens offered water and milk as their main drinks.
South Coast dairy farmer and chair of the NSW Farmers dairy committee Rob McIntosh also welcomed the idea.
“It will restore the trust and confidence of dairy farmers which has been eroded since the $1 a litre milk campaign,” Mr McIntosh said.
He also said a school milk program would financially boost farmers.
Australian dairy farmers have been struggling due to a downturn in the global market and the decision by Australia’s biggest dairy producer Murray Goulburn to retrospectively cut the price it paid to farmers requiring them to pay back the difference.
“In this climate where there are problems worldwide with oversupply, it means we can certainly utilise excess supply in the domestic market and that was certainly the benefit of it in the past,” Mr McIntosh said.
Joyce refuses to commit to national scheme
Peak advocacy body for dairy farmers, Australian Dairy Farmers, was supportive of the idea but questioned how it would work.
“The practicalities of a scheme are a bit more complicated now then when these programs ran 30-odd years ago,” acting president David Basham said.
“Considerations include anything from children’s allergies as well as indemnity issues and storage concerns — many schools no longer have kitchens to store milk”.
Mr Basham also said any milk program would not address “the fundamental issue” farmers faced of wearing the bulk of financial risk in the dairy supply chain.
“We need a practical and viable solution to increase transparency in the way the milk pricing system works and to simplify milk contracts to ensure the volatility of the market is better balanced along the supply chain,” Mr Basham said.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce would not commit to a national scheme, instead arguing a state-based solution was feasible.
He cited dairy processor Brownes, which has negotiated with the WA education department to supply milk to Perth school children.
“It remains an option for the dairy industry in other states to determine if milk in school schemes are of benefit and if so, to negotiate with the various state, Catholic and independent school systems,” Mr Joyce said.
Milk memories remain for audience
The topic had a big reaction on ABC Local Radio with listeners eager to share their memories of the milk program.
Jennie: “We were under direction to drink it, warm or not….. I still don’t drink milk 45 yrs later.”
Gwen: “We had it in the 50s. It was warm and sometimes the magpies perforated the lids and had a sip. I think we got it at recess. Guess today it would be in cartons or plastic but please, put some ice on it.”
Catherine: “I remember the free milk well. I can see so many benefits in this idea but children are flaky these days ….they probably wouldn’t drink milk unless it was highly-flavoured and that defeats the dental benefits.”
Robyn: “1950 school milk at North Bankstown school — we had to take our own cup….I still don’t like drinking milk.”