WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Do you want chocolate or regular milk with your lunch? That question is asked millions of times over every day in schools across the country. Now, the American Soybean Association is asking Congress to include soymilk among the lunch selections offered to school children.

Representing the American Soybean Association and the Soyfoods Association of North America, Ohio soybean producer Rob Joslin asked the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to begin providing schools with the option to offer their students soymilk.

His Oct. 7 request comes as the committee is reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act and the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act.

"Soy farmers, soy processors, and soyfood manufacturers have the goal of making our federal nutrition programs more effective in improving the nutritional intake and health of all children," says Joslin. "We want schools to have the opportunity to offer soymilk to children receiving meals under federal child nutrition programs."

The commodity groups say they want Congress to modify the current laws to assure that schools can easily provide nutritional foods for all children regardless of their health, cultural, or religious needs.

"I want to make one thing clear at the outset," Joslin says. "Providing an option to offer soymilk to meet the nutritional needs of children who do not consume dairy products and thus are not served by the current federal child nutrition programs, would complement, not replace cow's milk in the program."

Many children served by the school lunch and other child nutrition programs, particularly those from minority populations, do not consume cow's milk due to lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance is prevalent in some population groups as early as two years of age, he says.

To provide further credence to their case, the American Soybean Association cites studies that have shown lactose intolerance in up to 85 percent of Asian-American, 72 percent of African-American, 70 percent of Native American, 56 percent of Hispanic-American, and 21 percent of Caucasian-American school aged youth. It is also estimated that up to 2.5 percent of infants and children are allergic to cow's milk. For these children, lactose-free cow's milk is not an acceptable alternative.

According to the American Soybean Association, foodservice directors from schools across the country have written hundreds of letters in support of soymilk as an option for their school children who do not drink cow's milk to have an opportunity to consume a beverage containing protein, calcium, vitamin D and other essential nutrients for growth and development.

Fortified soymilk contains calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D equivalent to cow's milk, as well as iron, B vitamins and high-quality protein. Soymilk is low in saturated fat and contains no cholesterol.

"Let me clarify that what we are asking for is to allow schools the option to offer fortified soymilk as part of a reimbursable meal in USDA's child nutrition programs," Joslin says. "The language drafted by the American Soybean Association and the Soyfoods Association of North America is not a mandate for soymilk. It would simply allow soymilk as a reimbursable option for schools serving children who do not drink cow's milk."

Under the current system, USDA does not reimburse schools for soymilk unless the student provides a statement from a physician or other recognized medical authority. "For low income households going to a health care professional may not be possible or affordable. The option of utilizing school nurses is also impractical because many schools have only part-time nurses on the premises. The involvement of the medical community in providing documentation for children who do not consume cow's milk for non-medical cultural or religious reasons is also inappropriate," the American Soybean Association contends.

In addition, the group says, offering soymilk on an á la carte basis is not practical for children who are low income and receive a free or reduced price meal, but cannot drink dairy milk. Schools are not reimbursed for á la carte items, and children from low income families are often unable to purchase these options.

"We anticipate that the demand for soymilk in federal nutrition programs will begin slowly and increase steadily over time with increased awareness of this option for children," Joslin says. "This phase-in would give suppliers time to formulate and package a product that could be priced competitively with cow's milk."

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com