The Government risks ‘unlawful discrimination’ unless it extends its Nursery Milk Scheme to include plant-based milk, according to The Vegan Society.
The charity, which is the oldest vegan society in the world, has sent a legal challenge to Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, urging the Government to recognise the nutritional benefit of plant-based milks, such as soy and oat milk.
The letter states the definition of milk under the Welfare Food Regulations 1996 must be ‘updated and broadened to comply with human rights and equality duties’. Alternatively, it recommends an amendment to include a subsidy for a non-rice, plain, fortified plant-based alternative to dairy milk.
The challenge coincides with the United Nations World School Milk Day on 25 September, an event that celebrates the health benefits of school milk programmes around the world.
Parents have criticised the Nursery Milk Scheme, which was established in the 1940s and offers free cow’s milk to children under five in nurseries, for excluding families that choose to drink plant-based alternatives.
One parent from Northamptonshire said: ‘My son's school has milk delivered, and he was not given any milk alternative, all the other under-fives got free milk, and he did not. I had to send in plant milk for him to have at my own expense which is ridiculous when all the other kids got free cow's milk every day.’
Research shows that one in three people regularly buy plant-based milk, while the number of vegans in Britain has quadrupled in four years (prior to 2018), with the number estimated to be 600,000 and rising.
Dr Jeanette Rowley, legal advisor for The Vegan Society, said: ‘Law regulating the provision of milk for young children is in urgent need of reform to recognise current scientific evidence on nutrition and a growing consumer trend away from dairy products.
‘Public authorities are under a general duty under the Equality Act 2010 to avoid discrimination; by limiting the Nursery Milk Scheme only to cow’s milk, the Department of Health are failing in that duty.
‘We are urging the government to include fortified plant milk in its milk schemes nationwide, to ensure vegan children are catered for with a nutritionally adequate and delicious milk alternative.’
Mark Banahan, campaigns manager at The Vegan Society, commented: ‘Vegan children are unfairly treated as they do not benefit from the current school health initiatives, which are designed to increase calcium intake for growing children.
‘They often miss out or have to rely on parents to provide their own plant milk, something that is not always possible for low-income families and causes a great deal of inconvenience to families who should be entitled to free milk alternatives.’
The Vegan Society’s new Play Fair with Plant Milk campaign is calling on nurseries and schools to be more inclusive of children’s dietary requirements and ethical beliefs. It wants to see plant milks recognised in the same way as cow’s milk in schemes such as the Healthy Start Scheme and EU School Milk subsidy scheme.
The charity has given the Government 14 days to respond, after which time it will consider possible legal options.
The Vegan Society is urging those affected by lack of plant-based milks in nurseries and schools to support the campaign and write to their local MP.