For dairy farmers, school lunch programs are an awesome opportunity to distribute a lot of fluid milk while providing children nutrients they need. This same program can also be an area of frustration, though, when regulations limit what kind of milk can be offered to these young consumers.
In a recent “Your Dairy Checkoff” podcast, the topic of school milk was discussed, and a lot of the conversation centered around the value of giving kids choices.
“The school environment is where students get to make a choice without mom over their shoulder,” said Doug Adams, a research expert on school milk consumption. He explained that about three-quarters of the time, students will choose flavored milk if it is offered.
“They like flavors. Flavors are how they express themselves,” he shared. “Packages play into it, but at the end of the day, it’s the taste, and it’s the flavor. It needs to be cold, but flavors are the number one factor that students always come back to.”
Mark Bordeau, the senior director of food services for Broome-Tioga BOCES in Binghamton, N.Y., agreed.
“Milk is a beverage we must serve as part of our USDA requirements,” he said. “Milk is part of what we do, but we take pride in serving milk in a variety of ways.”
Bordeau, who oversees 15 school districts serving 13,000 breakfasts and 20,000 lunches daily, said that they have expanded milk consumption by offering multiple flavors, hot chocolate, and smoothies. “We are trying to have that atmosphere of a restaurant as much as we can in schools. It becomes of part of our strategic business plan to serve as many varieties as possible,” he shared.
Offering a wide variety of foods, including dairy, is more costly, but Bordeau said it is worth it.
“School food service is a business, and we have to look at the overall big picture of the business. Is it more expensive to serve larger varieties? Absolutely. But at the same time, it is bringing the more customers into the door,” he explained. “More customers in the door means more revenue, and more revenue means more variety. I don’t look at it as an expense. It’s something I have to do in order to grow my business for my customers.”
Adams shared data that when districts offering fat-free flavors change to 1% flavored milk, they see an 8% rise in chocolate milk sales and 2% overall growth in milk consumption. Bordeau concurred, noting that their school was given the option two years ago to offer 1% flavored milk again. They did, and they saw tremendous growth in milk consumption.
“Students were thankful, and they consumed it. We saw less waste. It became a very popular drink once again,” he said.
Beyond sales, milk in school meals set the stage for lifelong eating patterns that include dairy.
“The whole goal of school milk is not only current nutrition but also to establish these students, who are soon to be adults, in their habits of consuming milk and understanding the value dairy plays in diet quality as an adult and eventually as a parent,” Adams said. “The school plays an important part of teaching that to them.”