As the 70th anniversary of the birth of the school milk scheme approaches Linda Blackburne investigates its lumpy history and talks to an unusual couple who have elevated the chore of collecting the empties into a labour of love.
Since the first school milk scheme was introduced nearly 70 years ago it has always provoked powerful emotions.
Most of us have vivid memories of school milk. "Little boys used to drink it really quickly and do burps," said a colleague. Another recalls milk monitors rattling crates. Others remember milk which was lukewarm in summer and ice-crunchy in winter.
In 1927 a Conservative government introduced a school milk scheme after a series of pioneering nutrition studies showed that children's weight, height and concentration improved dramatically when milk was a regular part of their diet.
Fifty-two years ago Churchill's coalition government introduced free milk for all school children under the 1944 Education Act. His comment in March 1943 has earned a place in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: "There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies. Healthy citizens are the greatest assets any country can have."
But by 1968 school milk was under threat. Harold Wilson's financially-pressed Labour government withdrew free milk from secondary schools, and three years later Margaret Thatcher axed free milk for seven to 11-year-olds. Even when she became one of the century's most successful prime ministers, the Seventies sobriquet lived on: "Thatcher, the Milk Snatcher".
By 1986 education authorities were not allowed to provide free milk with taxpayers' money. Today it is only free for the under-fives, (although some education authorities are charging for it) and nutritionists are concerned about the dramatic increase in osteoporosis.
One in three women and one in 12 men in the UK suffer from the weak bone disease, and one in four teenage girls have such low calcium intakes that it is unlikely their bones will achieve their full potential density and strength, according to the National Osteoporosis Society.
In November 1995 the Government decided to stop European Union milk subsidies for secondary pupils and for all school catering. Primary schools, however, still get the subsidies.
The Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food estimated at the time that about half of secondary pupils received subsidised milk. A statement said: "The Government does not believe that the changes will have any nutritional disadvantages. The general health of Britain's teenagers will not be affected by the removal of the discretionary subsidy. Ultimately, responsibility for the diet of the nation's children rests with the nation's parents."
What is clear from the chequered history of school milk is that while the expert view of its importance has stayed the same - although skimmed milk is now recommended for all but young children - Labour and Conservative administrations have relegated it.
Stephanie Speirs, co-founder of The School Milk Campaign, is scathing about the Government's non-existent policy on school milk and the poor promotion of the EU school milk scheme: "Other European countries protect their young people by using the EU scheme fully and thus protecting their home dairy market. Finland and Sweden have free milk. Denmark and Holland have national schemes of subsidised milk sales. Both France and Germany have a higher take-up than the UK.
"In surveys of local authorities, boards of governors and headteachers we have found time after time a reluctance among teaching staff to bring in milk sales.
"A headmistress in an area of high unemployment and socio-economic decline said 'if it means more administration, then we don't want it here'."
Under the Government nursery voucher scheme, it is hoped that hundreds of new nurseries will open. All these four and five-year-olds are entitled to free milk - but will they be given it, Mrs Speirs wonders.
The campaign, which has been given Pounds 19,655 worth of National Lottery money for a new report on school milk, found last year that of the 55 education authorities who replied to their survey, 12 appeared to be charging for milk which should be free.
Eight provided cartons of free milk for all income support children, five have corporate milk sales policies and sell EU milk in every school, but not necessarily to children who bring sandwiches; seven appear to have no milk sales at all; 36 appeared to make no provision for sandwich children; in nine children could have either milk or a pudding and 38 said they had not yet told parents of their children's rights as EU members to benefit from the milk subsidy scheme.
The campaign, which is run by a group of independent parents, wants one central agency to oversee every aspect of school milk provision with power to enforce the current legislation, and all aspects of the EU school milk subsidy scheme to be made compulsory rather than discretionary for local authorities.
Its preferred model is the Netherlands' milk scheme, which provides subsidised whole, skimmed and chocolate milk for primary and secondary children. The scheme, which, Mrs Speirs says, is very popular with children, is run by the dairy industry and is cheap and easy to verify.
It also wants the Department for Education and Employment to instruct every local authority to sell EU milk in all schools at mid-morning break, the most beneficial time nutritionally for children.
The British Dietetic Association opposed the decision to stop education authorities providing free school milk in 1986, and earlier this year the National Dairy Council, the Dairy Industry Federation, the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Osteoporosis Society condemned the Government's decision to pull out of the EU milk scheme for secondary pupils.
Interestingly, the populations of other countries are unable to digest vast quatities of milk but do not suffer from calcium deficiency. Dieticians do not understand why. So how much longer will milk be a valuable commodity in our culture? Is milk going out of fashion as fruit juice, fizzy drinks, biscuits, sweets and crisps, which are high in fat or have insufficient vitamins and minerals essential for bone health, become the most popular snacks?
Our children will know.
* More information is available fromthe National Dairy Council, 5-7 John Prince's Street, London, W1M OAP. The Sins of Omission: A Reportfollowing a National Survey of LEA School Milk Provision. June-September 1995 costs Pounds 3.50 and is available from The School Milk Campaign,66 Burton Manor Road, Stafford, Staffordshire ST17 9PR