Searching for reasons for decline in milk consumption

John Oncken
Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue enjoys a milk toast with students at Sugar Creek Elementary students in Verona, Wis., on Oct. 1, 2019. Cartons of chocolate milk seemed to be the popular choice at this lunch table.

I recently received an email from my oldest daughter Lynne who lives in Fresno, California concerning a story in the Hustle newsletter dating to the New York Times on the subject of drinking milk and the lowered consumption of milk over the past 30 years.

What happened?

They place some of the blame for the drop in milk drinking on what is called Gen Z (born 1997–2012) who bought 20% less milk than the national average in 2022, though they do consume yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products.

One possible reason is that a higher number of Americans are lactose intolerant, and the numbers are increasing among those of African, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian descent, noting that Gen Z is more diverse than previous generations. Milk has a tough battle with Generation Z born between 1997 and 2012, it’s the country’s most diverse ever. A bare majority are white, and 29 percent are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Many come from backgrounds in which lactose intolerance is common.

Other reasons cited in the article include:

  • Many Gen Z among and others disliked the skim and low-fat milks served in schools (which, it turns out, may not be better for you than whole milk).
  • Milk may not be as crucial for building bones as previously thought???
  • Surprisingly (at least to me) there’s also “milk shame,” which refers to the stigma that it’s weird for adults to enjoy plain milk.
  • Some young people don’t like milk because they didn’t grow up with it as a dinner-table staple.

The government says

The “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010” removed whole or 2 percent milk from schools, and required that any flavored milk be nonfat. This led to a flood of social media posts complaining that school milk was disgusting. The Department of Agriculture in 2018 allowed 1 percent chocolate or strawberry milk back into schools.

“We lost almost an entire generation of milk drinkers," U.S.Representative Glenn Thompson, a Republican from Pennsylvania, told a farming publication.

Dairy farmers say government policies and nutritional standards have demonized whole milk, and that stigma is hurting their livelihoods. In upstate New York, roadsides are dotted with hay bales painted with messages urging the passage of a federal law that would return whole milk to schools.

John Oncken says he grew up with Kraft chocolate flavored milk. His mother bought it in 5 lb. cans

Some thoughts

I'll admit to being a poor milk drinker as a youth, much preferring to add a dose of Kraft Chocolate milk to my glass. My mother firmly believed that store bought chocolate milk was just spoiled white milk that should have been thrown away. I didn't agree and probably made buying my own bottle of chocolate milk and drinking it by myself, my first goal in life.The decline has been happening for decades. Americans’ annual milk consumption peaked at 45 gallons per person in 1945, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It fell to about 23 gallons in 2001, and by 2021 it was down to 16 gallons.

Over my years of agricultural involvement I've attended hundreds of farmer meetings most which have two things in common:

1) Never enough chocolate milk. The first people through the food line grabs all the chocolate milk. Why didn't the sponsors provide all chocolate milk? I guess they felt that the hosts would want white milk.

2) Most folks couldn't easily open those tough little half pint milk cartons. They would try the dinner knife, then maybe chew it open. Finally the one farmer took out his pocket jack-knife and announced, “I'll open your milk boxes, this knife is pretty clean since I only used it to castrate hogs just two days ago." A big laugh always followed and the boxes were finally slashed open.

The cardboard milk cartons that are so tough to open. White milk usually ran second to chocolate at community meetings.

My question? Why didn't the dairy industry invent an easy-open milk container? (Yes, Borden finally came up with the milk chug.)

Drinkers of fake milk seem to like the different plant tastes while milk offers white and chocolate? Why not banana, strawberry and more?

Different kinds of milk?

There are dozens of kinds of no-dairy milk in the average supermarket but only a few dairy-based. These include full fat, 2%, 1%, no fat, lactose-free and chocolate. In interviewing buyers, one of the reasons they bought fake milk was “different tastes". “Why not a flavored milk, I'd like that,” one woman suggested.

Fake milks are not a favorite with most consumers.

Well, why not? It's certainly possible.

Next week we'll take another look at fairlife, the one sort of new milk offered consumers in recent years.

John F. Oncken can be reached at