Politics

Objects That Matter: Milk

In 2009, researchers found that cows with names produce more milk, confirming the quaint Wisconsin dairy adage, “Speak to a cow as you would to a lady.”

According to Roman legend, Jupiter stole Juno’s breast milk to feed his illegitimate son—only to spill it across the cosmos. Jupiter’s gaffe is memorialized in the Milky Way, and milk has long enjoyed the status of “nature’s perfect food,” enshrined in centuries of myth and decades of federal policy.

In the early 20th century, federal nutrition campaigns promoted milk as a miracle food: Fortified with calcium and vitamin D, it would make kids taller, smarter, stronger—fueling, as one agriculture historian wrote in the 1930s, “the most enduring of the peoples of the world.” Like many early American milk advocates, the historian conflated the whiteness of milk with racial purity and claimed that the “Aryans'” heavy consumption of the beverage had led to their allegedly “quick and high development.”

More recently, when research emerged revealing dairy’s association with elevated risk of, among other things, prostate cancer and heart disease, milk consumption fell in the United States, and the dairy industry began to produce a surplus. In 2008, the government bought the whole haul. To sell it, a marketing arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered with fast food companies to create menu items like Taco Bell’s steak quesadilla, which has eight times more cheese than the chain’s other products.

Legal scholar Andrea Freeman argues that dairy’s long tradition of racialized marketing continues today with the USDA’s policies “promoting dangerous milk consumption in some communities”—through targeted marketing and school lunch and voucher programs—”while warning the general population against it [and other high-fat foods].”

Indeed, dairy’s ill effects disproportionately harm black and brown Americans living in neighborhoods dominated by fast food, who have been raised under guidelines extolling the virtues of a food group they are genetically predisposed not to digest: Up to 80 percent of both African Americans and Latinos lack the enzyme to process lactose. Globally, they are the norm, not the exception. Just as Juno was robbed of her milk, injustice is an ongoing part of dairy’s legacy.

A version of this story originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of Pacific Standard.
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