Milk Money Students Deserve An Edge Over Farm Subsidies.

Posted: June 13, 1995

The Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board is one of those small state agencies that remains a mystery to city dwellers far from the farm. But this month, the board may take action on a subject close to home.

The price of milk.

The Harrisburg-based board is mulling a policy change that could not only affect Philadelphia schoolchildren, but also taxpayers' pocketbooks: revising - downward, it is hoped - the price of milk sold to Philadelphia's public schools.

The board sets minimum milk prices for milk sold in the state, with the tricky goal of protecting dairy farmers, distributors and customers. It's a mission that began during the Depression, amid fears that desperate farmers would undercut each other so badly they would drive each other out of business. While Pennsylvania is one of only five states that still has a milk board, it also has about 11,800 dairy farms, a sizable interest group.

Eighty percent of Philadelphia public school students are poor enough to qualify for free, federally subsidized breakfasts and lunches, a program offered in each of the district's 247 schools. Thus the district annually buys 20 million of those familiar half-pints, at 18 cents apiece. (Pittsburgh, the next-largest school district in the state, doesn't come close.)

But Philadelphia officials say the same milk is sold 5 cents cheaper in states like New Jersey, which has no milk bureau. And that means the district pays an extra $1 million a year for milk - at a time when it is struggling to find money for textbooks and school nurses. It cannot by law receive any bids

from milk vendors lower than that set by the board, nor can it get more federal dollars for the meal programs.

Last week, the board began hearing testimony to consider changing milk pricing policy in southeastern Pennsylvania. The board takes into account market and weather conditions, distributors' delivery costs, and other factors. After a similar review in 1994, it did mandate a 4 percent discount on large orders such as the district's.

It's unfortunate that giving a break to the cash-strapped school district may end up hurting thousands of dairy farmers. But at a time when government ought to be questioning agricultural subsidies and support, and when poor school children need all the nutritional help they can get, that's the sound way to go.

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