The free milk scheme was first introduced into Queensland state schools in 1953 as an initiative of the Commonwealth government.
The scheme originated in the work of Dr Cory Mann in Britain in the mid 1920s. His work was applied successfully in different countries in the early 1930s when economic depression focused attention on nutrition. In Queensland, depression era governments examined the idea. However, teachers opposed it on the grounds that distributing milk and collecting bottles and money would take too much teaching time.
At the State Education convention in 1941, the British Medical Association (BMA) raised the issue again. The BMA's, Dr Noel Gutteridge proposed a scheme to provide a daily ration of milk to all school children comprising one half pint.
He proclaimed the health value of milk highlighting that a ration of milk:
- doubled the normal growth rate of children
- had positive effects on behaviour at school, athletic prowess, absenteeism and dental health.
Economic motives also underpinned the advocacy of free milk. Milk production in the early 1940s had reached an historic high without a corresponding increase in milk consumption or exports of butter. School milk schemes would distribute this surplus cheaply.
No attendee at the 1942 Education convention opposed the idea of increased milk consumption among children. However, the Queensland Teachers' Union was concerned that the scheme placed a large additional burden on teachers and instead, urged an education campaign in schools.
In July 1950, the Prime Minister of Australia, Robert Menzies raised the matter of a free milk scheme in a letter to State premiers. Commonwealth and State health ministers met in Canberra and prepared guidelines for implementing the scheme. The Commonwealth Department of Health would operate the scheme with State authorities acting as agents. In December 1950, the Commonwealth's State Grants (Milk for School Children) Act was passed and by October 1951 all Australian states, with the exception of Queensland were participating in the scheme.
In Queensland, the Hanlon government raised concerns about aspects of the scheme as inappropriate in a State with a tropical climate and huge distances between centres. An Agreement was later signed and the scheme began operating in the greater Brisbane area on 3 March 1953. The scheme was extended later that year to country centres and it was estimated that 150,000 Queensland school children were consuming 30,000 gallons of free milk each week.
Implementing the scheme was a significant exercise in interdepartmental collaboration. It was planned and supervised by an inter-departmental committee. The Department of Public Instruction (later Education) was largely responsible for the day-to-day tasks of administration and organization including:
- processing of tenders for the supply of milk and drinking straws
- comparison of school statements of actual supply with vendors claims
- supply and consignment arrangements
- record keeping related to all of the activities.
Teachers and children of the 1950s and 1960s will remember that the milk was supplied in small bottles containing one third of a pint. Plain drinking straws were provided.
The insertion of the straw into the bottle was challenging. The bottle was almost impossible to open by normal means, which was downward pressure under the palm of the hand followed by a twisting motion. It would open by the 'thumb through the lid' strategy. Use of the thumb was problematic as it had to be discreet given that it was forbidden. The secret was not always well kept as it could be explosively messy.
The taste of the free school milk will remain vividly in the memory of school children from this era. The milk was never refrigerated and on a hot Queensland day, the taste it had acquired by 'little lunch' could be sickening. Enjoyment was not improved if you forgot to shake the bottle before opening and got a mouthful of warm, sometimes lumpy cream. Some fortunate children brought flavouring to school to add to the milk to make it more palatable.
A voluntary activity
Free milk consumption was a voluntary activity. Parents had to give permission for their child's participation. The scheme was limited to children under the age of thirteen at the time of application. It was thought that children beyond this age would benefit less.
The Review of the Continuing Expenditure Policies of the Previous Government, the Coombs Report (June 1973) presented to the Commonwealth government recommended that the scheme be discontinued. According to the Coombs Report, this recommendation was based on significant agreement among health authorities that the continuation of the free milk scheme could not be justified on nutritional grounds. Benefits to the diet were likely to be minimal beyond the age of 7. The scheme ended in 1973.
A new scheme
After receiving many requests for the scheme to be re-introduced, the Queensland Cabinet decided to introduce a new system for all pre-school children in January 1978. Pre-school children had to be in regular attendance at both State and non-State centres. It was established as a State initiative by the Department of Education. By August 1984, this scheme supplied cartons containing 150 mls of milk to children in 1,638 participating centres. They comprised 582 government centres including pre-schools, special pre-schools and early education centres and 1,086 non-government comprising mostly kindergartens, family day centres, day care centres and playgroups.
The highly decentralised nature of the scheme led to high administrative costs. It was decided that these funds would be used elsewhere in the 1987–88 budget. The State Free Milk Subsidy Scheme ceased from the end of the 1987 school year.