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About the Special Milk Program

The Special Milk Program provides milk to children in schools, child care institutions and eligible camps that do not participate in other federal child nutrition meal service programs. The program reimburses schools and institutions for the milk they serve. Schools in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Programs may also participate in the Special Milk Program to provide milk to children in half-day pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs where children do not have access to the school meal programs. The Food and Nutrition Service administers the program at the federal level. At the state level, the Special Milk Program is usually administered by state education agencies, which operate the program through agreements with school food authorities.

Generally, public or nonprofit private schools of high school grade or under and public or nonprofit private residential child care institutions and eligible camps may participate in the Special Milk Program provided they do not participate in other federal child nutrition meal service programs, except as noted above. Participating schools and institutions receive reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each half pint of milk served. They must operate their milk programs on a non-profit basis. They agree to use the federal reimbursement to reduce the selling price of milk to all children. Any child at a participating school or half-day pre-kindergarten program can get milk through the Special Milk Program. Children may buy milk or receive it free, depending on the school’s choice of program options.

Schools or institutions may choose pasteurized fluid types of unflavored or flavored whole milk, low-fat milk, skim milk, and cultured buttermilk that meet state and local standards. All milk should contain vitamins A and D at levels specified by the Food and Drug Administration.

When local school officials offer free milk under the program to low income children, any child from a family that meets income guidelines for free meals is eligible. Each child’s family must apply annually for free milk eligibility. For children who receive their milk free, the USDA reimburses schools the net purchase price of the milk.

Expansion of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, which include milk, has led to a substantial reduction in the Special Milk Program since its peak in the late 1960's. The program served nearly 3 billion half pints of milk in 1969; 1.8 billion in 1980; and 179 million in 1990.

Congress appropriated $15.4 million for the Special Milk Program in fiscal year 2003, up from $15.8 million in FY 2001. By comparison, the program cost $101.2 million in 1970; $145.2 million in 1980; and $19.2 million in 1990.

For more information

For information on the operation of the Special Milk Program and all the Child Nutrition Programs, contact the state agency in your state that is responsible for the administration of the programs. A listing of all our state agencies may also be found on our web site.

Page updated: November 13, 2023