Flavor and finances are key factors driving school milk consumption.
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Innovatively addressing those issues are critical to both the nutritional health of students and the financial strength of school feeding program budgets, according to participants in a recent Your Dairy Checkoff podcast.

The podcast, developed by Dairy Management Inc., was hosted by Alex Peterson, Missouri dairy farmer and chair of the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, and Audrey Donahoe, New York dairy farmer, chair of the National Dairy Council and chair of the American Dairy Association North East.

“Milk is an extremely important part of our business,” said Mark Bordeau, director of food services, Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) in Broome and Tioga counties in New York.

The cooperative provides child nutrition services for 15 school districts in southern New York, providing approximately 13,000 breakfasts and 20,000 lunches daily, along with snacks and other food offerings. Bordeau is also immediate past president of the School Nutrition Association.

“School food service is a business. We are regulated by USDA but we are still a restaurant within those schools. Milk is a beverage that we must serve as part of the USDA requirements but want to make sure we’re serving it in the best possible environment with the largest variety we can. If we don’t, our customers won’t come in the door. It becomes part of our strategic and business plan to do the best we can to serve it in as many varieties as possible for our students.”

Doug Adams, president of Prime Consulting Group, works with Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), state and regional dairy promotion organizations and state school nutrition association chapters to evaluate milk consumption in schools and the variables that affect it. One of the aspects he emphasizes is making milk “fun and exciting” in school offerings.

“The school environment is where students get to make a choice without Mom over their shoulder … and without question, three-quarters of the choice in most cases is a flavored milk,” Adams said. “Flavors are the number one factor that students always come back to. Flavors are how they express themselves.”

Meeting student demands for flavor improves consumption levels, he added.

“We find that if a district had been offering fat-free flavors and they change it to 1% fat, they will see an 8% increase in their chocolate milk sales and a 2% increase in overall milk consumption because the mouthfeel and the taste is better,” Adams said.

Another aspect of growing importance to school boards dealing with the finances of school meals and milk is “local,” Bordeau said. New York’s farm-to-school program provides financial incentives to purchase locally grown and processed food items, including dairy. Other states, including Michigan, Vermont and California, have or are implementing similar incentive programs, he said.

Meeting both student nutrition and school budget needs in what Adams called a “controlled chaos” environment requires innovation. Current pilot projects utilizing new in-school milk dispensers, vending machines delivering entire breakfasts and shelf-stable products are among new innovations being tried around the country, he explained.

Innovation includes increasing the varieties of milk offered in schools, Bordeau added.

“Anything we can do to serve the milk in the best possible way, in the largest variety possible to our students, we want to do it because we know how important that milk is to the healthy growth of the child, both mentally and physically,” he said.

Bordeau said federal requirements limiting milkfat content has led to a decline in milk consumption in schools. He agrees with dairy farmers who urge serving higher-fat varieties of milk in schools.

Currently, Adams said, milk is part of about 52% of school meals. That leaves plenty of room for growth. “If we’re successful in making it more exciting, cooler, easier from a supply chain perspective, we could literally almost double the amount of milk the students consume in schools. To me, that’s where I think we could go.”

Bordeau said increasing school meal participation will help address the challenge of school budgets. At the same time, there are new financial challenges faced by schools. Those include labor and trucking shortages that require less frequent but larger deliveries of milk to schools, adding to refrigeration capacity requirements.

Dairy products and, in particular, grass-fed products are performing strongly post-covid in overseas markets.

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