Does the School Lunch Program have the Right to Require Kids to Take Milk?


Q: Michelle –  My friend has a boy going into Kindergarten and told the school to not give him milk. But before they do that they want a doctor’s note!?! Is that legal? She is the mother and should be able to decide. Does the school have a right to demand this? Even if she does get a note, her child has to take the milk in the School Lunch Program in the meantime. This will cause him to get sick if he drinks it!

A: Alisa – Michelle, you aren’t the first person to contact Go Dairy Free on this issue. A couple of years ago a milk allergy mom out of Iowa sent the same inquiry. After I posted about the concern here on Go Dairy Free, I received a flood of emails from individuals and moms who had the same problem with school lunches.

Not all school districts and schools enforce this issue, but many do require a doctor’s note for a child to turn down the milk provided in the school lunch program. Is it ridiculous and unjust? I think so, and so do thousands of parents. Not only can it be potentially unsafe for the child, it’s also an extra burden and often adds the expense of another doctor’s visit each year.

Required Milk in the School Lunch Program - options for milk allergic, lactose intolerant and dairy-free kids

School Lunch Program Options for Milk Allergies

The basic options for avoiding milk at lunch include the following:

  • Get a doctor’s note excusing their child from taking milk at lunch, preferably before the school year starts. Most schools require a new note every year.
  • Teach the child that they must dispose of the milk rather than consume it. Yes, wasteful as it may seem, your child has the right to throw away that milk, but they have to take it.
  • If it is an option, send the child with lunch and don’t have them partake in the school lunch program.

Some more progressive lunch programs are beginning to offer options like soymilk and calcium-fortified orange juice as an alternative to milk. However, some of these still require a doctor’s note for the child to make the swap.

Here’s how Jennifer handled getting a note for her child:

“Yes, my son’s preschool refused to allow him to drink soy without a letter from the doctor.  It made me very angry not to have authority over such choices for my son at school. Turns out they were afraid they would lose their funding if they didn’t force kids to drink milk at school and an inspector saw them. I took the easy way out and got a letter from my doctor who, fortunately, believed that I had the right to make that choice for my son. He even signed it by phone/fax, so I didn’t have to pay for an office visit.  If your regular pediatrician won’t, then find an N.D or O.D. who will. Don’t give up!”

A doctor’s diagnosis is also required to establish a 504 plan, which is a more extensive option for protecting children with milk allergies.

504 Plans for the School Lunch Program

Severe food allergies are now classified as a disability under the American Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that kids with a severe milk allergy might qualify for a 504 Plan. A 504 Plan is a written management plan that outlines how the school will address the individual needs of your child. This can include making accommodations in the School Lunch Program if the child participates in it.

According to the USDA, who facilitates the School Lunch Program, “when in the licensed physician’s assessment, food allergies may result in severe, life-threatening (anaphylactic) reactions, the child’s condition would meet the definition of ‘disability’.”

To set up a 504 Plan, the allergic child’s parent or guardian must contact their school’s 504 Coordinator. A team will then be assembled to determine if your child qualifies for protection under Section 504. Medical information, such as a diagnosis, will be required, so you won’t be getting out of the “doctor’s note” here. That said, a 504 Plan can be set up before the school year begins.

For more information, see the Accommodations for Children with Special Diet Needs.

No Severe Milk Allergy?

Unfortunately, many kids have non-IgE food allergies, lactose intolerance, or another unidentified issue with milk. Amanda had this problem:

“In high school I had trouble with the lunch program in the Florida public school system. When I was about 12 years old I discovered that I was lactose intolerant. I couldn’t have the milk at lunch anymore at school. I was able to refuse it, but I wasn’t able to get a second orange juice to replace the milk. So, I would often accept the milk and exchange it with a friend who liked the milk in return for their orange juice. I was told that if I wanted to have 2 juices I would have to get a doctor’s note stating it was an allergy.

This problem persisted all the way until graduation [about 4 years ago]. I also couldn’t get a real vegetarian meal through the school. I was offered a salad with no meat on it, but I couldn’t have their only dressing offering (Buttermilk Ranch). Schools need to realize that students don’t want milk or can’t have milk and need another option. The states need to realize this when budgeting for the school year and so does the federal government. Food allergies are becoming more prevalent and everyone deserves to eat.”

In these cases, it’s unlikely that a 504 Plan will be available, but contact the school. If you reach out kindly, keep your cool, and be ready to back up your kid’s problems with milk, you may find a sympathetic staff who is willing to help. Schools can opt to offer a milk substitution, but they do so at their own expense. See this document on Allowable Milk Substitutions.

Required Milk in the School Lunch Program - options for milk allergic, lactose intolerant and dairy-free kids

About Author

Alisa is the founder of, Food Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living, and the new cookbook, Eat Dairy Free: Your Essential Cookbook for Everyday Meals, Snacks, and Sweets. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.


  1. i am in 6th grade and some times i am forced to get milk i just thow it away my problem is that i dont like it not that i cant have

  2. I am in my first year of middle school (6th grade) but in middle school I don’t have to get milk if I say I can’t have it (no proof needed) but in elementary school I was FORCED to get milk whether I was going to drink it or not (and if I didn’t get it I couldn’t leave the lunch line until I got a milk which would be wasted) In kindergarten I was taught “Milk makes your bones healthy and strong” but I learned the hard way that milk gives me diarrhea and nausea. It would be nice if we could get almond milk instead because my body can handle that but apparently dairy milk is better 🙁

      • I was told district 4 in orangeburg county that starting this year the kids did not have to take milk if they didn’t want it. is that true for all districts or is it state wide or district policy. so confused

        • From what I’ve read, policies are under review, but there hasn’t been a nationwide ruling for the School Lunch Program that changes the milk policy in this way. Districts can decide to make these types of changes, but they run the risk of losing funding. This has been my understanding based on documentation and regulations, but things can change! I can’t seem to find any national updates for this school year other than being permitted to offer flavored 1% milk.

  3. What should I do if I don’t have an allergy or any medical reason not to drink milk? I’m working my way towards vegetarianism but also cutting straight milk out of my diet (Dairy products ok, just not a glass of milk) because I’ve seen the studies about pus and stuff like that in cow’s milk. My school offers bottled water with lunch but it’s $1.25 extra, and I can’t get a bottle of water every day. I wouldn’t be able to get a doctor’s note or a 504 because I can’t not physically consume milk. Would I have another option? Reusable bottles would work but my school is strict about leaving during lunch to get water from the water fountains and also strict about filling up during passing periods.

    • Hi Kyle, under the School Lunch Program specifically, there isn’t a policy to address this type of situation. I would discuss it directly with the administration at your school to see if they can make any concessions for you directly. It does make it a very grey area if you consume dairy, but choose not to consume just milk specifically.

    • I’m pretty sure the school is legally obligated to provide access to clean drinking water (a nearby water fountain) to all students at school. Even during lunch.

  4. I’m lactose intolerant,when the summers over I will be in fith grade.But I kinda had a similar situation.I did not have a doctor excuse.I did not get milk.The lunch lady just made me get a extra side.But,she refused to give me LACTADE milk.Since I did not have a doctor excuse.But I am getting one soon.

  5. Pingback: How to Pack Dairy-Free Milk Beverage for Lunch (4 Solutions!)

  6. Pingback: Kids with Food Allergies: Handling the Social and Emotional Aspects - Go Dairy Free

  7. My boys are allergic to milk and both have a Dr’s note stating that they are to have soy milk. They have had this note since pre-k (now 3rd and 2nd graders). However, this year, they stopped giving white soy milk and only providing chocolate soy. According to the school, they are covered b/c the note does not specifically say “white” soy. Are my children not allowed to have the option of white/chocolate milk like “regular” kids? Why all of the sudden is this an issue?

    • I’m so sorry to hear this Yvonne. Indeed, the only requirement is that if the school offers an alternative (which they aren’t required to do) that it must be relatively equivalent to cow’s milk in nutrition. The only milk alternative that currently qualifies is soy milk, as you have discovered. That said, I bet chocolate soy milk still fits within the guidelines as despite having more sugar, it still has the same protein levels and fortification. They are using a technicality, and you might need your doctor to specify to get around that.

    • Hi April, thank you for letting me know. I’ve updated the links, but many states now have their own milk substitution policies, which is likely why they removed that document. I did link up to their original document on it though.

Leave A Reply