Articles / Cow Milk Mafia


Cow Milk Mafia

Published December 21, 2023

Astonishingly, if your school participates in the school lunch program, federal law makes it illegal for students to publicly criticize cow’s milk

Photo: Evening Standard/Getty Images

The latest episode of Food with Mark Bittman is up! Kate and I talked to God’s Love We Deliver executive chef Andre Daquigan about what the holidays are like at an organization that routinely prepares and delivers 13,000 meals a day; why he loves his job so much, and what makes others so passionate about the organization; and how God’s Love has changed since it was founded in 1985, during the height of the AIDS crisis. You can listen here, and now, onto today’s rather astonishing piece by Marielle Williamson, who until recently was still in high school and already employing the sort of activism that makes us all proud. — Mark

If you had told me at the outset of my senior year of high school a little over one year ago that I would be tangled up in a free speech lawsuit over my right to publicly talk about dairy, I would not have believed it— or the national media attention it has garnered!

This process began following an internship where I served as a fellow with New Roots Institute in Los Angeles, formerly known as Factory Farming Awareness Coalition. Through this internship, I volunteered with the Physicians Committee, which was working with students on tabling events about the dairy industry with games, prizes, raffles, cookbook giveaways, and literature in which we talk about dairy’s carbon footprint and the stronghold the dairy industry has in the school system.

Except, upon requesting permission to hold this event, I was told by my principal and administrators that I could not hold it unless I promoted dairy, too — a product already heavily advertised across my school. My principal cares about student voices, yet it was clear this response stemmed from something greater. In this case, it was a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) federal law stating that “any school that participates in the school lunch program … shall not directly or indirectly [hinder or restrict the sale of cow’s milk]”.  This policy even factors into the placement of water in school canteens and its effect on dairy sales.

Marielle Williamson. Photo: Jessica Pons/The Washington Post/Getty Images

My school had pro-dairy posters throughout its cafeteria; “Got Milk?” was quoted in morning announcements and written in menus; and the alternative milk (in very limited quantity) was intentionally placed where students could not access it unless they specifically asked for it and had a medical or parent-signed dietary form. These initiatives, along with the policy that barred me from holding my tabling event, demonstrate the extent of control the dairy industry holds over our school system and why this needs to be brought into public awareness. 

There are a few key provisions of the legal settlement that ensure that students won’t find themselves in the same situation within the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) going forward:

LAUSD created a Student Speech Policy Position that “acknowledges and agrees to the lawful ability of students, as a matter of free speech and expression at LAUSD schools, to set up tables and/or displays to express their personal views during non-instructional time, such as that which student Marielle Williamson sought to do based upon the allegations in the Complaint. The District expressly acknowledges that students’ distribution of materials on school grounds critical of dairy is protected by the First Amendment of the Unified States Constitution, the California Constitution, the Education Code, and LAUSD policy … ”

Secondly, LAUSD issued a memorandum and directives to principals and food service personnel reiterating the rights outlined in the policy position. Lastly, LAUSD agreed to accept a donation from the Physicians Committee in support of free soy milk for students.

While USDA is the greatest decision maker in school meal policy (and the leading funder of the “Got Milk?” Campaign), I anticipate this will form cracks in the district’s emphasis on dairy — however, I know that even LAUSD is limited in what they can and cannot say.  I hope that at least due to this settlement, parents, teachers, and administrators within the school system will start to reconsider their view on a product such as milk and how it came to be so mainstream.

Photo: Instagram/@gotmilk

On a greater note, I would urge students to see this outcome as encouragement to advocate for themselves when biased policies try to prevent this. Future leaders of this world are shaped in high school classrooms every day, and without the possibility of discourse and inclusion of all perspectives, we cannot work together to find common ground in resolving issues that affect us all. I also hope this experience has planted seeds in the minds of children affected by school meals and our food system. The milk of the mother of a different species is not a necessity for humans—and to promote it to such an extent that we cannot speak against it in schools, demonstrates a much greater problem. I encourage those in support of this outcome to dig deeper into why this is the case, as well as why it matters—for animals, health, and the planet, and most significantly for the freedom to speak out about it. 

I am very grateful that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and I were able to reach an agreement with LAUSD that enshrines the free speech rights that led to my legal challenge of school policies. Our settlement means that other students who want to speak openly about their concerns about dairy can do so. Still, it seems absurd that a lawsuit was required for this clarification. Our lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture remains open.

Marielle Williamson is concluding her first fall semester at Duke Kunshan University in China, under a dual degree program with Duke University. There, she is studying International Relations and Public Policy, with an intended path in environmental law. Having advocated for food and climate legislation in the U.S., she eventually hopes to work for the United Nations on global climate policy, working towards a global shift to a plant-based food system.