The pandemic has forced us to take a closer look at many shortcomings in our communities over the past few months, including those in the food system. Though farmers have continued their essential work of harvesting food, connecting those products with the consumers that need them has proven to be more difficult in such unique circumstances.
Now, perhaps more than ever, consumers and farmers alike are recognizing the work it takes for nutritious foods to reach people. The system is not invincible, and a perishable product like milk especially relies on the system to function. This is particularly evident in food programs at schools.
Usually, about 7% of fluid milk sold in the U.S. is consumed through schools. The dairy industry is used to having this market shrink during the summer when school is out, but production also tends to slow at that time of year. When the pandemic forced schools to be closed for months this spring just as production on farms was heading toward a peak, problems quickly added up.
Not only did dairy farmers face a dire oversupply of milk, but millions of students lost their access to nutritious foods, including milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter. As of 2019, roughly 30 million school children qualified for free and reduced school meals, a number that only expanded with the pandemic.
For those reasons, the quick action of USDA to waive certain restrictions on school meal delivery and the response of communities around the country to offer those meals was invaluable. Summer meal flexibilities were then prolonged, and USDA even announced that school meals would remain available free to all students through the end of 2020. Children were getting nutrition they needed, and dairy was often prominent in those meals.
Now, USDA has expanded more options for school meals as they issued a rule that restores meal flexibilities that had previously been contested. With the proposal, schools will have the ability to serve flavored, low-fat milk in children’s nutrition programs. The provision also allows more time to adopt sodium standards and the requirement that half of weekly grain offerings be whole.
The dairy industry celebrates the allowance of flavored, low-fat milk. Schools will have more choice in the products they serve their students, many of whom will be attracted to flavored milks. More children are likely to choose milk, and less will be wasted.
And as the pandemic waivers continue to provide help to millions of food-insecure school children, the nutrition found in that carton of milk will reach the people who need it.