Marielle Williamson says her First Amendment rights were violated when she tried to promote nondairy milk at her Los Angeles high school. (Jessica Pons for The Washington Post)

Milk shake-up: High school student sues school district over dairy flap

Suit claims her L.A. school violated her rights by telling her to praise cow’s milk, which many of her generation dislike

7 min

Growing up, Marielle Williamson was grossed out by milk. What she learned about animal agriculture made her uncomfortable. Why, she wondered, were we consuming the breast milk of another animal?

But when the 17-year-old tried to distribute literature sharing her views promoting nondairy milk at her Los Angeles high school, she says, administrators responded that it wasn’t allowed unless she extolled the virtues of cow’s dairy, too. Pro-dairy “Got Milk?” messages were already plastered across the hallways and even repeated on the morning announcements, she said. The directive felt like a violation of her First Amendment rights. So she sued the school district and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees federal school meals policy.

“By compelling Marielle to simultaneously distribute the dairy misinformation that she seeks to refute, District Defendants have violated Marielle’s free speech rights,” her lawyers argued in the suit filed May 2 in District Court with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine as a co-plaintiff. “More than that, [the defendants] have laid bare the extent to which [USDA] treats dairy as sacrosanct, both as a matter of law and policy.”

The USDA and the Los Angeles Unified School District declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The conflict unfolding at Eagle Rock High School is emblematic of a broader fight over cow’s milk, once a staple of the American dining table. It has lost its status in some circles amid worries about its healthfulness and impact on the climate, as well as the rise of alternatives such as oat and nut milk. Generation Z is particularly skeptical, drinking 20 percent less liquid milk than the national average, according to Circana consumer data.

Tastes have also changed. Even as dairy-based cheese and yogurt increase in popularity, the same can’t be said for liquid milk. Forty-two percent of American households purchased plant-based milk in 2021. And while plant-based milk unit sales grew 19 percent from 2019 to 2022, animal-based liquid milk saw a 4 percent decline over the same period, according to National Consumer Panel data.

In short, 30 years after the launch of the wildly successful “Got Milk?” industry campaign, more and more Americans are saying, “Nope, not so much.”

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But this turn against cow’s milk is sparking pushback from the dairy industry. A milk processors association recently launched an advertising campaign mocking plant-based milks. The campaign features famously sardonic actress Aubrey Plaza promoting milk made from trees. “Is wood milk real? Absolutely not, only real milk is real,” Plaza says in a satirical commercial.

The shift is also creating new headaches for school nutrition administrators, who are beholden to USDA rules that hark back to a time when American children often drank a frosty glass of cow’s milk with their meals.

Williamson, a senior, thought it would be no big deal to request a plant-based milk with her lunch instead of cow’s milk. Besides, she thought, so many people are lactose intolerant, particularly many people of color — a major consideration in her diverse school district. But she was shocked, she said, when the school told her she’d need a doctor’s note to get a nondairy alternative.

“People don’t really like to drink cow’s milk anymore, and they have other sources of dairy. My friends are plant-based for the most part, and we talk a lot about our food system,” she said.

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In October, Williamson, who eats a primarily vegetarian diet, gave out samples of oat milk to her classmates to promote dairy alternatives. “So many students I’d never met before said, ‘I don’t want cow’s milk, I love oat milk,’” and endorsed making plant-based options available in the cafeteria, she recalled.

She decided to do something bigger, asking her school if she could hold a “day of action” promoting the benefits of nondairy milk. The administration said yes, she said — but only if she also had pro-dairy information as well.

That would defeat the purpose of her event, Williamson said.

Shannon Haber, a Los Angeles Unified spokeswoman, said that the school district follows USDA guidelines and is unable to address ongoing litigation or student matters, but that “Los Angeles Unified takes pride in empowering students to amplify their voice on issues they find important. We continue to support our students with nutritious meals and healthy alternatives for those who have specific dietary requests and requirements.”

Haber declined to address Williamson’s claims that the school promotes dairy milk in the morning announcements and through posters.

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Critics have long decried USDA guidelines requiring milk to be served with public school lunches. The USDA reimburses schools for every meal served, and cow’s milk is included. Lactose-free and nondairy options are sometimes offered, but typically are more expensive and an added cost that would have to come out of schools’ budgets.

Seven percent of U.S. liquid milk is consumed in American schools, according to Matt Herrick, senior vice president of the International Dairy Foods Association.

Over the years, as Americans have drifted away from drinking glasses of milk, the dairy industry has expressed concerns that offering bottled water or other beverages alongside milk at school would deter students from choosing dairy.

“Dairy and milk play a central role in school meals by providing 13 essential nutrients students need for healthy growth and development,” Herrick said. “Milk is the top source of calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin D in kids ages 2 to 18.”

Still, many say, with skyrocketing cheese and yogurt consumption and dwindling milk enthusiasm, there are other sources of many of these nutrients.

The USDA says schools “must not directly or indirectly restrict the sale or marketing of fluid milk at any time or in any place on school premises or at any school-sponsored event,” and school nutrition manuals admonish that “program operators are not to promote or offer water or any other beverage as an alternative selection to fluid milk in their reimbursable meal throughout the food service area.”

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Most school nutrition programs are still facing routine supply chain problems that began during the pandemic, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, director of media relations for the School Nutrition Association, the trade group for school-food-service professionals. She said schools in July will lose some of the per-meal funding provided by Congress under the Keep Kids Fed Act, which makes the prospect of stocking plant-based milk options daunting.

“Programs will be ill-equipped to cover basic operational costs, let alone new expenses,” she said.

Milk has also been considered an essential part of the American diet under other federal programs, including food stamps and the program for women, infants and toddlers called WIC. But shifting values and thoughts around what constitutes essential nutrition are changing that as well. The USDA, citing lower uptake of milk benefits and increased interest in fresh fruit and vegetables, has proposed reducing the amount of milk provided to recipients in the program.

Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment law professor at the UCLA School of Law, said the Supreme Court has upheld the First Amendment rights of students in U.S. public schools.

“Students have a right to speak in favor of dairy or against dairy,” Volokh said, “and the school cannot constitutionally restrict that or compel some viewpoint.”

Williamson’s father, Bennett Williamson, said his daughter has been a strong animal rights advocate since doing research on the food system for a big school project.

“A lot of things really surprised and worried her,” he said. “The more Marielle learned, the more she became convinced we can do better.”

Marielle Williamson ticks off environmental problems like methane emissions associated with the dairy industry, as well as what she considers the unethical treatment of animals. But it’s also about respecting students’ choices — and not giving in to what she sees as the heavy-handed influence of the dairy industry.

“There’s so much behind it, but it’s overshadowed by this, ‘Drink milk for strong bones — we need it!’” she said.