ST. PAUL — Kids' meals in Minnesota would come with milk or water as the default beverage unless parents asked for another beverage under a proposal before the Minnesota Legislature.

Lawmakers on Tuesday, Feb. 18, presented the proposal as part of Dairy Day at the Minnesota State Capitol. Sen. Karla Bigham, D-Cottage Grove, and Rep. Jeff Brand, D-St. Peter, at a news conference, said the measure wasn't a mandate and wouldn't eliminate parents' option to choose another drink for their children.

But it would make milk or water the go-to drink pairings when families go out to eat in Minnesota. The move to change state law to encourage the dairy drink option is important for children's health, the lawmakers, health experts and farmers said, but also for dairy farmers who struggled last year as the price of milk has dipped.

"We are not trying to preempt parental decision-making here, if you still want your child to have juice or pop, you just have to ask for it," Bigham said. "What this bill will do is provide delicious, healthy, excellent-tasting milk for children. And this bill will hopefully start ensuring children have healthy habits when it comes to their decision-making on nutrition."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that 80% of the top 200 restaurant chains in the U.S. have sugary beverages listed on their kids' meal menus. And while many restaurants are removing soda or lemonade from those menus or independently moving to offer milk or water as the default, health advocates said it's important to enact policies that can reduce children's consumption of soft drinks and other sugary beverages.

Hospitality Minnesota, a group representing restaurants and other hospitality businesses in the state, is working with Bigham on the bill, according to spokesman Ben Wogsland. He said the organization wants to make sure that the bill still allows restaurants the freedom to offer alternative options to parents and kids.

He added that many restaurants have been "out in front of this" anyway, already offering milk or water as the default.

Dairy producers also said the proposal could help boost sales of liquid milk in the state, which have lagged in recent years.

David Buck, president of Minnesota Milk Producers, on Tuesday told lawmakers that the industry was hit hard last year, but state and federal programs aimed at easing the burden helped keep producers in the industry. Buck said that about 330 dairy producers left the industry in 2019 and the state had the highest-in-the-nation rate of enrollment in a federal assistance program.

“Without that help, it would’ve been worse,” Buck said. “There’s no two ways about it, 2019 was a tough year in the dairy industry.”

The state last year also approved funds to help support farmers struggling with barns collapsed under the weight of snow and ice and opened the Dairy Assistance, Investment and Relief Initiative to supplement federal dairy margin coverage.

The milk proposal is set to come up for a House hearing next month but it wasn't immediately clear when it would come before a Senate committee. It has bipartisan co-sponsors.