Last fall, Marielle Williamson, a senior at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, set up a table just outside her school’s college center. Stocked with free stickers and cartons of Oatly oat milk, she settled in to tell people about the environmental and ethical benefits of plant-based milk. Classmates soon crowded around for samples of oat- or pea protein-based beverages.

“Students loved it,” Williamson told Grist. 

But when she began planning a similar event this spring, school administrators pushed back. Citing federal regulations against school-sanctioned activities that could “directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing” of cow’s milk, school administrators refused to greenlight Williamson’s second event — unless she agreed to also distribute pro-dairy information.

That would “counter the whole point of the campaign,” Williamson said. “It felt wrong.” So she dropped the idea and opted for an alternative strategy, one that’s already drawing much more attention: a First Amendment legal complaint. On May 2, Williamson filed an unprecedented federal lawsuit against her school district and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, arguing that compelling her to distribute “dairy promotions” violates her right to free speech.

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“I didn’t want to just sit there and be like, ‘OK, I guess I can’t do anything,’” she said. 

Williamson’s lawsuit, which was endorsed last week by the Los Angeles Times editorial board and is now the subject of national news coverage, has become a platform for her broader criticisms about the dairy industry. It’s part of a growing, youth-led movement against the Agriculture Department’s “milk mandate” — a requirement that public schools offer moo juice at every meal service — and other federal rules that make it difficult for students to access plant-based alternatives.

Some students oppose the rules because they are vegan. Others simply find cow’s milk gross. But they’re generally united by a few common factors: the prevalence of lactose intolerance, particularly among students of color; the way industrial dairy farms treat cows; and the industry’s outsize climate and environmental impacts. 

“Animal agriculture produces 14.5 percent of [global] greenhouse gas emissions and nobody’s talking about it,” Williamson said. At last year’s United Nations climate summit in Egypt, she added, “they had one booth on food out of hundreds.”

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Marielle Williamson stands in front of a white table
Marielle Williamson hosted a successful “Scary Dairy” event for her peers in October 2022. Courtesy of Raven Corps

Under federal law, public schools participating in the National School Lunch Program — a child nutrition program established in 1946 — must offer two kinds of unflavored, low- or nonfat “fluid milk,” meaning skim or 1 percent, with every meal. Students can get a nondairy substitute, but only with a doctor’s note saying they have a “disability” restricting their diet. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, says the program is intended to support kids’ healthy development, but experts say its roots are more political than nutritional. During World War II, the U.S. government encouraged farmers to produce more milk that it could send to soldiers overseas. Once the war was over, farmers found themselves with more of the stuff than they knew what to do with — and so the government created programs like the Milk Price Support Program to keep demand from falling.

To many medical groups, the school dairy requirement has become a clear anachronism. Research suggests that cow’s milk is unnecessary for, and even potentially detrimental to, healthy human development, and critics note that no other mammal drinks milk after a brief period at the beginning of life.

“There’s very little high-quality evidence, and no comparable mammalian example, to argue for the specialness of cow’s milk” after about age 2, Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, wrote in a 2020 New York Times article

In fact, most people — about 68 percent of the global population, including the vast majority of people of color — can’t even digest milk after infancy. In the U.S., some 80 percent of all African Americans and Native Americans and more than 90 percent of Asian Americans have a genetic inability to digest lactose. Americans with Northern European heritage are least likely to be lactose intolerant, prompting some lawmakers to call the USDA’s mandatory milk program “dietary racism.”

“There would be reprisals if the United States were to put a product on the trays of white kids that caused potentially widespread adverse reactions,” 31 members of Congress said in a 2022 letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack.

To be clear, the USDA’s dairy rules don’t require students to actually take a carton of cow’s milk with their meals; schools just have to offer it. Fortified soy milk is supposed to be readily available to students who provide a doctor’s note saying they have a “disability,” but critics say this is a burdensome and belittling requirement.

“It’s ridiculous that a condition that affects 68 percent of the world would be considered a ‘disability,’” said Deborah Press, associate general counsel for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit that helped Williamson file her lawsuit. Press says the USDA’s dairy rules are designed to obstruct students’ access not only to plant-based alternatives, but to any beverage that isn’t cow’s milk. Indeed, schools cannot even offer bottled water in the lunch line, or in any manner that “interferes with or appears to substitute for” cow’s milk.

“The USDA has made [cow’s milk] virtually untouchable,” Press said. 

White tray with milk, smiley-faced french fries, apple sauce, and sausage
Lunch at a public school lunch in New Jersey. James Leynse / Corbis via Getty Images

Both the USDA and LA Unified School District, which includes Eagle Rock High School, declined to comment on the pending litigation. The school district did say its food services program follows USDA guidelines. “We continue to support our students with nutritious meals and healthy alternatives for those who have specific dietary requests and requirements,” a district representative said.

Even so, more and more young people are calling out the USDA policy. Williamson’s successful event last fall, for example, was held in conjunction with more than 100 other students across the country as part of a national day of action called “Scary Dairy,” organized by the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Raven Corps. The youth-led organization supports anti-dairy student activism through its Mind Over Milk campaign. 

“We’re the ones affected, we’re the ones drinking the milk and not being able to access the alternatives,” said Shubhangi Bose, a senior at Westview High School in Portland and Raven Corps’ policy and legislation lead. Other groups supporting young people in this effort include the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition, and more than a dozen additional members of the Healthy Future Students and Planet Coalition

Students Grist spoke with — including Williamson — said they’re motivated not only by the social justice implications of the USDA’s milk policies, but by the ethical and environmental implications of industrial dairy production. To them, milk’s protected status endorses animal cruelty and fuels the climate crisis.

“Animal agriculture contributes so much to climate change,” said Morgan Greenlaw, a senior at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto, California, who held a plant-based event at her school this spring. Greenlaw, a self-described “die-hard vegan,” draws a direct line between the massive wildfires and smoky skies of her upbringing and the greenhouse gas emissions associated with raising tens of billions of animals a year for meat and dairy.

In the U.S., the dairy industry is responsible for about 2 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions, as well as extensive land and water pollution. Compared to milks made from soy, almonds, oats, or rice, cow’s milk does worse in just about every category: It uses up to 22 times more water and 26 times more land, and generates 10 times more harmful runoff into lakes, rivers, and streams. 

Workers in a large-scale dairy farm attach tubes to cows.
Workers at a dairy farm in Iowa. Wang Ying / Xinhua via Getty Images

Eloísa Trinidad, executive director of the nonprofit Chilis on Wheels — which is part of of the Healthy Future Students and Planet Coalition — says climate and environmental concerns have caused a surge in youth opposition to school milk programs. “A lot of our students … are experiencing climate anxiety,” but feel that they can’t do anything about it, she said. “They don’t feel empowered by most school districts to take charge of their well-being, their health, or climate action.” 

Trinidad says one 10th grader, frustrated with the USDA’s school milk policies, recently asked her, “Why doesn’t the government ask us what we want to eat?” A mismatch between how milk is distributed in schools and students’ desire to drink it means that up to 45 million gallons of milk are wasted annually — enough to fill 68 Olympic swimming pools.

For now, getting cow’s milk out of school cafeterias is a political nonstarter; many legislators are loath to challenge the dairy lobby, or risk angering farmers. But Williamson, Raven Corps, and others have submitted comments to the USDA and endorsed federal bills that would at least add soy milk to the lunch menu — without the need for a doctor’s note. These bills include the Addressing Digestive Distress in Stomachs of Our Youth (ADD SOY) Act and the Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act. Both would require school districts to provide nondairy milk to any student whose parent or guardian makes a written request.

“Students and their families deserve healthy, plant-based, culturally appropriate meal options at school,” New York Representative Jamaal Bowman, a Democratic co-sponsor of the Healthy Future Students act, told Grist.

Neither bill would eliminate dairy milk from school lunch programs, but many youth activists see them as a first step toward that longer-term goal.

“Ideally in the next dozens of years, I’d love to see [cow’s milk] be replaced, but realistically, that’s not an option right now,” Williamson said. “The goal of the lawsuit is to make plant-based milk an option for anyone who wants it, even if they’re not lactose intolerant. They should be able to choose the more sustainable option.”