Working To Enhance School Milk Experience by: Marilyn Hershey, DMI Chair

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Milk has been a synonymous symbol of nutrition in school cafeterias across the country for decades. In fact, milk is the only specific food that’s required by the USDA to be offered with every breakfast and lunch.

School milk is a top priority for the dairy checkoff because we understand students aren’t just the consumers of today; they are the parents of tomorrow and this is our greatest opportunity to keep them in the dairy category. Milk sold in the school channel represents 7% of all fluid milk volume. That’s 6.9 billion half-pints, 433 million gallons and 3.7 billion milk pounds annually.

But we also understand we are facing milk consumption declines among today’s generation of students. They have new expectations and seek a different milk experience. Since the 2008-09 school year, annual volume of milk sales has decreased by more than 65 million gallons. Nationally, kids aged 1 to 17 represent more than half of all milk volume declines.

There are several factors leading to milk decline: packaging, maintaining cold temperature, taste and fat options, which are determined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Thankfully, our dairy checkoff and industry overall are exploring opportunities to reinvent and enhance the school milk experience and there are some exciting possibilities on the horizon.

One of my favorites, and I’m sure other farmers would agree, is milk dispensing systems. These self-service “milk bars” allow students to choose milk in the flavor and formulation they desire. And it’s served ice cold.

For schools, dispensers also offer a great sustainability solution. The milk is served in reusable plastic cups, which greatly eliminates carton waste and eases the janitorial staff’s load. Like many businesses, schools are seeking more sustainable/environmental “zero waste” solutions to satisfy demand from students, parents, communities and others. One study even called out milk as a major contributor to food and package waste in schools.

COVID-19 dealt a blow to progress in this area with school closings last year. Checkoff teams, however, were able to conduct dispenser pilot programs at schools with partner companies just before the pandemic. Some of the results were mixed because of school closing but there also were positive signs where milk consumption increased and waste decreased. The goal of these business cases is to inform audiences, including:

  • Influencer districts
  • School foodservice management companies (Chartwell’s, Sodexo, Aramark)
  • School industry associations
  • Government/NGOs
  • Equipment companies
  • Co-ops, processors, brands

Another area of exploration for schools is shelf-stable milk, which has taken on added relevance with the COVID-19 era changing how schools feed kids. We saw various serving models last year, including meals being picked up at schools or delivered into neighborhoods via bus routes. These factors make refrigeration a challenge, but shelf-stable options maintain food safety and quality and they keep the milk flowing.

With the ever uncertainty of COVID, many districts have been seeking shelf-stable milk to support these various operating models. The issue has been compounded by processor plant closings and reductions in delivery frequency. There also has been a discontinuation of bidding on school milk, which has led to limited or inconsistent supply, especially in rural and dense urban areas.

I also want share how milk consumption is driven through our longstanding Fuel Up to Play 60 in-school health and wellness program. This is done in partnership with the National Football League (NFL) and we have a presence in more than 70,000 schools.

We know smoothies are a popular choice with students and a great way for them to consume dairy. So, earlier this year we hosted the Undeniably Dairy Smoothie Blitz campaign, where NFL players went head-to-head with their best smoothie recipes, culminating with a live social media event in March. Fuel Up to Play 60 students were part of the fun as they submitted smoothie recipes using milk in a national video contest. The contest’s winner, a student named Ian from Tennessee, also has a great backstory of helping to provide meals (and dairy!) to his community during COVID.

Fuel Up to Play 60 also continues to evolve its funding/grants to focus more on increasing dairy sales. For the first time, checkoff teams offered a dairy-focused equipment package option for schools applying for a Fuel Up to Play 60 grant. Of the more than 700 applications submitted, 30% requested smoothie kits. State and regional checkoff teams have so far placed 160 smoothie kits in schools across the country.

Like all farmers, I’m grateful for the secure place we have enjoyed in schools with our milk and other dairy products. But we understand change is needed to keep pace with new dynamics and expectations so we can continue nourishing students with the healthy products that come from our farms.

A positive school milk experience is critical to students’ futures.

It’s also vital to ours.