NEWS

State school officials work to find milk for students

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
Many of Wisconsin’s school districts are having trouble finding the half-pint containers of milk that school children consume every day – and if they find them, they come at a higher price.

As the school year gets into full swing, the nutrition coordinators in many of Wisconsin’s school districts are having trouble finding the half-pint containers of milk that school children consume every day – and if they find them, the prices are higher than they are used to.

Milk distributors have been in touch with school district nutritionists since the end of the last school year as they got word from Borden Dairy that it was closing its bottling plant at Chemung, Illinois, a facility where many of the school-sized containers were produced. The company’s DePere, Wisconsin facility also quit packaging the half-pint containers. That lack of product from several suppliers has put many school districts in a bind.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) offers federal assistance with meals in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. That program was created to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches (depending on their parents’ ability to pay) to children each school day. In some schools, breakfast is also offered to students.

The federal lunch program has been in place since 1946, when it was signed into law by President Harry Truman.

When it began, the program served 7 million children in the first year, and the program has reached something over 30 million children in recent years. During the pandemic, the federal government lifted all income guidelines from the program so that all kids, regardless of their families’ ability to pay, were able to get free meals. This was a way to simplify the system and make sure that young people who were hungry had a chance to get their meals for free.

According to communications specialist Chris Bucher at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction – the state agency that oversees schools – those simplified pandemic assistance requirements expired at the end of June. That means that the old requirements on a student’s ability to pay for school meals are once again in place. The changing requirements have made for some busy weeks as school terms began and local school officials had to once again require some students to pay, Bucher said.

He noted that DPI has a team of 20 nutrition specialists that help the state’s 421 public school districts navigate the requirements of the federal school lunch program. Throughout the summer that nutrition team worked to help local district nutrition coordinators find alternative sources for the milk they need to serve students.

Milk is a required component of the child nutrition programs and the USDA goes into great detail about the kinds of milk that can be used to fulfill this requirement – whole, skim, low-fat and buttermilk. Milkshakes can be used to meet the milk requirement as long as they contain the minimum required quantity of fluid milk per serving.

Milk that is processed at Ultra High Temperatures (UHT) which allows it to be stored without refrigeration (sometimes called shelf-stable) for three to 12 months is also allowed under the program.

Milk must be served

If schools do not serve milk with students’ meals, the federal funding assistance for the meals themselves is lost to that local program – thus the scramble to find sources of school milk.

According to the USDA’s website dealing with the school nutrition programs, in areas like Alaska, Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam and Puerto Rico, if a sufficient supply of any fluid milk as described in its rules cannot be obtained, then “milk” can also include reconstituted or recombined milk and that can be used in school lunch programs. (One would hope that schools wouldn’t have to resort to powdered milk in “America’s Dairyland.”)

Bucher said the districts in the state that were not able to find milk resources for their school lunch program varied around the state and he was not aware of it being a specific problem in certain areas. However, sources at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, who also helped to try to find solutions to the school milk shortage problem, said the situation was most acute in the central part of the state.

School nutrition coordinators in various districts told Wisconsin Public Radio that it was alarming to not have a ready supply of fresh milk for their students. When they were able to secure milk supplies, the cost was up 30% from last year.

“We are in the state of Wisconsin; we are a dairy state,” Wausau school district’s nutrition coordinator Karen Fochs told WPR. “We’re still very proud of the products that we produce in our state locally. We should be able to have fresh milk for our students.”

She is preparing for the possibility that her district’s students – in one of the largest dairy producing counties in Wisconsin – may not have milk every day.

However, at DPI, Bucher said the department’s nutrition procurement team hasn’t yet heard of a Wisconsin school not being able to find milk. “That said, the team continues to keep their eyes on the situation in case something like that occurs,” he added.

Bucher said that if schools do find themselves in a situation where they don’t have milk for school nutrition programs, they should submit an “Inadequate Fluid Milk Supply Request” within two business days to the DPI’s School Nutrition Team.

In email communications with schools, which Bucher shared with Wisconsin State Farmer, the nutrition team suggests they use the “List of Known Milk Vendors Operating in Wisconsin” if they are having trouble finding milk supplies, noting that the “list is not exhaustive.” They ask school nutrition administrators to share contact information they may have for other milk suppliers that work with schools and would like to be added to the list.

Nasonville Dairy, which has a cheese plant, a dairy farm and a bottling plant operated by the Heiman family near Marshfield, had never provided small containers to school meal programs. But when there was a need from local schools they found a way to process milk into 8-ounce plastic pouches.

Several local school districts in central Wisconsin – Athens, Stratford, and several private schools – prevailed upon a local bottler to provide school milk in small containers. Nasonville Dairy, which has a cheese plant, a dairy farm and a bottling plant operated by the Heiman family near Marshfield, had never provided small containers to school meal programs. But when there was a need from local schools they found a way to process milk into 8-ounce plastic pouches and made them available so their local schools would have milk for their meal programs.

List of vendors

That list includes 12 milk suppliers operating in various regions of the Wisconsin. Some are dairies and some are distributors. The list includes one vendor in Portland, Oregon which specializes in sales of shelf-stable milk to schools.

The DPI Nutrition Team also shared with schools some emergency procurement methods, which include “noncompetitive purchasing”, including the purchase of things like bulk dispenser machines or gallon packaging and reusable tumblers to serve milk in. Those tumblers are then washed in school dishwashers to be ready for the next use. Schools may also enter into an emergency contract, which is specifically limited to one school year.

The DPI nutrition team requires school to provide a minimum of two kinds of milk, one which must be unflavored.

They also suggested to schools that they try having a minimum of two milk types available to all students at every meal. One milk type must be unflavored at each meal, they noted.

In their notes on the serving of bulk milk (sold in 3 to 5 gallon bags), the memo to schools noted that use of bulk milk has “improved taste” and can be served at cooler temperatures and it may be more cost-effective than half-pint cartons. Students must take a full 8-ounce serving if served from bulk dispensers.

Giving milk to students in this fashion may help limit food waste because of decreased packaging. According to the memo circulated by DPI, some schools in the Pacific Northwest that have implemented bulk serving of milk have noted that it makes life easier on school custodians – picture garbage tubs filled with small milk cartons, some of which were not fully emptied.