I dug through white and red-marked square cartons. I was frantic in search of the one with a brown color. Nothing. I absolutely hated being the last class in the school lunch shift because it meant all of the chocolate milk was gone.
As a youngster, that brown carton symbolized one thing — freedom of choice.
At home, my family served only white milk. Chocolate was a luxury we just couldn’t afford. At school, there were options. Back then, it was chocolate and later strawberry. But chocolate was my favorite.
Fast forward 44 years, and it turns out that kids today are actually like kids of yesteryear — all about the choice.
All about the flavor
With school back in session, many students will once again be looking at drink options for lunch. In a recent “Your Dairy Checkoff” podcast, dairy farmers and school food supply companies talked about what drives students to reach for a milk carton.
Doug Adams, president of Prime Consulting Group, a business that analyzes dairy product consumption in schools, says, “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. The flavors are the No. 1 factor that students always come back to. Flavors are how they express themselves.”
Adams says it’s not just flavor that keeps kids drinking milk in school. It boils down to the entire taste experience. He says students react to how the milk feels in their mouth — was it robust or was it cold?
“We find that for instance, if a district had been offering fat-free flavors and they change it to 1%, they will see an 8% increase in their chocolate milk sales and a 2% increase in overall milk consumption from getting back to 1% because the mouthfeel and the taste is better,” Adams explains. Mark Bordeau agrees.
Bordeau supplies milk products to schools primarily in the state of New York in his role as director of food services at Broome-Tioga BOCES. He says in 2010 when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed, it required nonfat milk to be used in flavored milk. The company saw a decrease in milk consumption in schools.
“So, two years ago, we were given the option to offer 1% flavored milk again, and we saw a tremendous increase in milk consumption,” he says. “Students were thankful. They were very happy. They consumed it.” And, he adds, there was less milk waste.
Expand dairy’s school footprint
Increasing dairy offerings in schools is key for the future of the dairy industry and its farmers.
Adams sets a lofty goal for milk consumption. “Today, if you look at the number of meals that students have at school, lunch and breakfast, milk is a part of about 52% of those meals. What does that mean? That means that 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.”
For him, it is about making milk fun. And that requires food service companies to offer more than just flavored milk in school.
Bordeau’s company expands all dairy offerings to include smoothies, yogurt and even hot chocolate. The company also thinks outside the box and looks at vending machine options for an entire meal, including the dairy product. He says about 60% of the meals his company serves have milk as a part, but he adds, “We have room to grow as well.”
Secure milk’s future in schools
However, there is only so much dairy industry partners, companies and dairy farmers can do. Milk in schools is heavily regulated by USDA. Bordeau says these lower-percent milk fats should be studied further.
Frankly, kids don’t like the taste of nonfat or 1% milk. That is not what most are served at home. Many have whole milk or at least 2%. So, when kids go to school, they want that same taste and texture.
Bordeau contends schools should be allowed to serve whole milk. “I think the science is starting to show that maybe we should have whole milk at the younger age level for kids,” he says.
Dairy farmers continue to produce a quality product for children. It is time for the government regulators to get out of the way, back to common sense and allow whole milk in school lunch programs.
U.S. Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson of Pennsylvania and Rep. Antonio Delgado of New York introduced the Whole Milk for Healthy Kids Act of 2021 in March. The measure would allow flavored and unflavored whole milk into school cafeterias. So far, no action has been taken by the House.
My generation grew up on whole, flavored milk in schools. Shouldn’t every generation have that freedom of choice?
You can find the entire podcast here: