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Dairy’s Unique, Essential Role in Plant-Based School Meals

By: Bessie O'Connor, RDNand Meggan Rush

  • Friday, March 17, 2023
  • 3 Minute Read   


At the 2022 California School Nutrition Association Conference in October, attendees had the opportunity to network with Dairy Council of California in the exhibit hall and participate in a session called “Be in the Know: 2022 Nutrition Trends for Foodservice Professionals.” If you missed this session, I encourage you to read the full Trends publication at HealthyEating.org/Trends

The conference session sparked robust conversation about milk and dairy’s role in the plant-based movement, the vital contribution of school meals to nutrition security, and how collaboration can help overcome challenges. School foodservice professionals from across California asked questions and shared nutrition trends they were experiencing, including concern about an increase in doctor’s notes requiring vegan meals for students. 

Although a variety of nutrients are needed to prevent deficiency and promote optimal health throughout the life span, healthy eating guidance is shifting away from nutrient-focused food groups to food-based dietary patterns. The three eating patterns recommended in the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize consuming a variety of plant-based foods, but they also include dairy to meet nutritional needs and reduce the risk for chronic diseases—which is why federal child nutrition programs include dairy. While these recommendations are clear, many Americans are under consuming vegetables, fruits and dairy, resulting in nutrient gaps.1 

The shift in dietary guidance is influenced by research on the unique aspects of whole foods and their interaction as part of dietary patterns. The food matrix concept helps address why different foods and various levels of processing affect health differently. The unique structures and composition of whole foods provide functional health benefits beyond the nutrients contained in the foods. 

The dairy food matrix is one of the most complex and diverse food matrices, and research continues to explore its unique health benefits, which include optimal growth, cognitive development,2 gut health3 and prevention of chronic diseases. 4 Dairy milk, in comparison to plant-based alternative beverages, offers the most balanced distribution of energy from carbohydrates, protein and fat; coupled with its unique nutrient package, dairy milk can be difficult to replace in a healthy dietary pattern.5 As foodservice programs develop plant-forward menu items, milk and dairy remain unique and essential nutrient-dense contributions to support students’ proper growth, development6 and academic success.7

Newsroom_PoppySeedsWinterArticleDairy Council of California’s Trends report can help school foodservice professionals navigate a changing environment while prioritizing the nutritional needs of growing students. Programs go beyond serving nutritious and delicious meals to also provide nutrition education and support staff professional development, and Dairy Council of California’s Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative can provide tangible strategies to achieve foodservice goals. Let’s Eat Healthy envisions a future of nutrition equity, where each and every child has access to the healthy foods and supports necessary to reach their full potential. Join the Let’s Eat Healthy Initiative at HealthyEating.org/Join, and let’s work together to end hunger and increase healthy eating. 

Originally published in Poppy Seeds Magazine, the original journal for the California child nutrition profession, for the Winter 2023 issue.


Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System Interactive Charts and Highlights. USDA Economic Research Service. https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-availability-per-capita-data-system/interactive-charts-and-highlights/. Updated October 29, 2019. Accessed November 7, 2022. 
Schwarzenberg SJ, Georgieff MK. Policy Statement: Advocacy for Improving Nutrition in the First 1000 Days to Support Childhood Development and Adult Health. J Pediatr. 2018. http://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-pdf/141/2/e20173716/917265/peds_20173716.pdf.
Luvián-Morales J, Varela-Castillo FO, Flores-Cisneros L, Cetina-Pérez L, Castro-Eguiluz D. Functional foods modulating inflammation and metabolism in chronic diseases: a systematic review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2021. doi:10.1080/10408398.2021.1875189
Mozaffarian D. Dairy foods, obesity, and metabolic health: the role of the food matrix compared with single nutrients. Adv Nutr. 2019. doi:10.1093/advances/nmz053 
Vanga SK, Raghavan V. How well do plant-based alternatives fare nutritionally compared to cow’s milk? J Food Sci Technol. 2017. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13197-017-2915-y
Dror DK, Allen LH. Dairy product intake in children and adolescents in developed countries: trends, nutritional contribution, and a review of association with health outcomes. Nutr Rev. 2014;72(2):68-81. doi:10.1111/nure.12078
Bradley BJ, Greene AC. Do health and education agencies in the United States share responsibility for academic achievement and health? A review of 25 years of evidence about the relationship of adolescents’ academic achievement and health behaviors. J Adolesc Health. 2013;52(5):523-532. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.01.008

Bessie O'Connor, RDN

Bessie O'Connor, RDN

Bessie is a practicing Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the Community Nutrition Adviser for California’s Central Coast region.


Meggan Rush

Meggan Rush

Communications Manager Meggan brings professional expertise in leading successful communications for media, public relations and marketing programs.