The new school year is in session, and for millions of students, that means the return of nutritious breakfasts and lunches served in their cafeterias after a year and a half of mostly learning and eating at home. Milk and other dairy products were key players in meals that schools and communities worked hard to distribute during the pandemic, and that value remains now that many students are back in their schools.
To make milk an enjoyable part of the school meal, it must be offered in ways that students appreciate. USDA Food and Nutrition Services shared these tips on adding milk to menus with child nutrition professionals as they are developing their meal plans for the year ahead:
1. Source local milk
Milk is a food that is always in season, making it the perfect choice for a fresh, local addition to the lunch tray. In fact, the 2019 Farm to School Census found that milk was the second-most frequently purchased local item by schools. Local milk supports the community’s economy while providing easily accessible nutrition.
2. Keep milk cold
Controlling temperature is one of the most critical actions a school can take to preserve the flavor and taste of its milk offerings — and that means keeping it cold. Milk should be stored at 41°F or below, USDA said. If the cost of equipment such as milk coolers or dispensers is challenging, national grants, as well as possibilities from state or other local provisions, are available.
3. Provide equal access
For lactose-intolerant youth, milk taste or temperature will not override the potential discomfort that consuming milk brings. USDA reminds that certain groups of students, including Hispanic, African American, Asian, and American Indian populations, are more likely to be lactose intolerant. Fortunately, lactose-free options of real dairy milk deliver the same nutrients without that concern, and offering lactose-free milks in school allows all students the option to choose a nutritious beverage. If a school adds lactose-free varieties, be sure that information is known to parents and students.
4. Encourage milk
Offering milk in innovative and fun ways encourages students to choose milk and the nutrients that come with it. A smoothie with 1 cup of milk per serving meets the requirements for a school meal, and numerous schools have capitalized on this at breakfasts and “grab and go” stations. In other schools, warmed chocolate milk is a popular hot chocolate substitute in the fall.
5. Plan for changes
As the pandemic continues to affect supply chains and the school year, school food professionals are able to be flexible with waivers that allow for meal adjustments, like serving low-fat flavored milk. If milk procurement issues continue, schools should work with their state agencies, USDA encouraged.