Soaring price of milk harms children's health

CHEAP AND HEALTHY: Martyn Grey, and his family, Chantelle, left, 10, Zavier, 3, Danyelle, 12 and Cameron, 18 months, drink Al and Sons milk because it costs less.
CHEAP AND HEALTHY: Martyn Grey, and his family, Chantelle, left, 10, Zavier, 3, Danyelle, 12 and Cameron, 18 months, drink Al and Sons milk because it costs less.

The rising price of milk has led to children from poor families missing out on essential dairy foods, new research shows.

Otago University researchers found the high price of milk and other dairy products in recent years had harmed the health of New Zealand children.

As well as the loss of nutrition from milk, families had switched to soft drinks, which were cheaper but increased obesity and dental risks.

The university's Wellington-based researchers found that since dairy industry deregulation in the 1980s, milk products had become significantly dearer for low-income families.The price of a two-litre bottle of milk had more than tripled since deregulation, with standard brands selling for about $3.20.

The study cited a 2002 Ministry of Health survey that found only 38 per cent of children drank milk daily, with 17 per cent not drinking it at all or less than monthly.

The researchers are calling for lower-priced dairy products or financial help or food programmes for low-income families so they can afford to buy healthy food.

Health Minister Tony Ryall has announced a review of the $12 million-a-year Fruit in Schools programme as part of an overhaul of ministry spending.

Otago University researcher Moira Smith said successive governments had focused on overseas trade in dairy products at the expense of New Zealanders.

"It means that milk, a basic nutritional product fundamental to children's health, is often outside the reach of low-income families," she said.

"Half a century ago, governments supported the right of every child to cheap milk at home. Now, this has been removed and serious health inequities have developed in New Zealand, particularly among lower socio-economic groups and Maori and Pacific peoples."

Despite payouts to farmers falling from about $7 a kilogram of milk solids a year ago to about $4.55kg now, the retail price for two litres of milk had remained the same, Smith said.

The high price of dairy products meant families were giving their children cheaper soft drinks regularly, she said.

Paediatric Society of New Zealand president Rosemary Marks said dairy products were crucial in children's development.

Milk contained not only calcium for "laying down" good bone structure and texture, but protein.

A lack of calcium at a young age could heighten the risk of osteoporosis, she said.

Families that substituted milk for cheaper beverages, such as high-calorie soft drinks, ran the risk of children becoming obese or developing diabetes, Marks said.

Public health nutritionist Bronwen King said she doubted the Government would implement any suggestions from the milk study.

"The Health Minister has made it very clear that good nutrition is about personal responsibility and has wiped virtually all nutrition programmes aimed at creating environments where the healthy choices are the most available, affordable and attractive choices," she said.

"Try telling a family struggling to feed a family on $100 a week to buy more milk when, with current pricing structures, they simply could not afford to do so.

"Personal responsibility can never work unless the environment supports it. Until milk becomes affordable for all, we will continue to jeopardise the health of our children and increase health disparities."

Grocery shopping in Christchurch yesterday, Martyn Grey said his family of six used lots of milk.

"We buy a green top every two days or so and a blue top every day. We use it in everything breakfast, teas, coffees, dinners," he said.

He always bought the cheapest milk. "With some of the bigger brands, you're getting up to $4 or $4.50, and that's just ridiculous."

The Press