Summarized in a conference call with media on April 10, the shift includes working with industry and food service partners to increase distribution of additional dairy products to off-site school feeding program and food banks. Priorities include redirecting dairy product supplies to serve those in greatest need over the next two months, while at the same time limiting widespread milk disposal seen in recent weeks.
According to DMI’s CEO Tom Gallagher, the initial surge in “panic buying” that resulted in dramatic increases in retail fluid milk sales has now slowed to at or below pre-virus levels. At the same time, closures of schools and restaurants have sharply reduced dairy sales through food service channels. Gallagher estimated about 60% of butter sales and between 40%-50% of cheese sales move through food service channels, plus large volumes of fluid milk as an ingredient in other beverages.
DMI President Barb O’Brien said DMI and its network of 16 state and regional units have responded to the deepening business and cultural shifts occurring as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. She identified four emergency action teams – schools, hunger, food service partners and retail – established by DMI to target realigned priorities.
“We are urgently executing these strategies across the U.S. to help dairy farmers in this time of crisis, which is more important now than ever in our history,” said DMI President Barb O’Brien.
Details of the effort, also outlined in a letter to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, include:
- Ensuring access to school meals: By working through the farmer-founded GENYOUth organization, local promotion groups, the USDA and technology and food companies such as Domino’s, YUM! Brands and others, the goal is to ensure school children will continue to receive meals.
With schools nationwide closed, GENYOUth created the “For Schools’ Sake – Help Us Feed Our Nation’s Kids!” movement, which so far has generated $3 million in corporate and individual donations, with a goal of adding $12 million more. More than 7,7000 applications have been submitted by school districts across the country requesting up to $3,000 grants for equipment, packaging and other supplies as school food service professionals work to feed at-risk children.
O’Brien said school milk represents about 7% of U.S. fluid milk sales, making the feeding program important not only to the health of youth, but also critical to U.S. dairy farmers.
Helping food banks meet growing need: DMI is working with cooperatives and companies, quick serve and food service partners, and Feeding America to broaden access to dairy foods for the growing number of people facing food insecurity. The checkoff is convening cooperative leaders seeking to find a destination for excess supply with local processors and food banks. This effort already is diverting more than 140,000-150,000 gallons of milk per week in Texas, New Mexico, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, New York and New England into the hunger system.
- Convening partners across supply chain: Working with domestic partners to realign the supply of dairy products to those in need in the U.S., while working through U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) to assure dairy products continue or resume flowing into the critical export market
Domino’s is working with GENYOUth and local organizations to pilot a grab-and-go meal program at 31 public school sites in Miami. So far, approximately 23,000 meals have been made available and similar opportunities through other franchisees in Michigan and other locations are being explored.
Gallagher said DMI was also working with larger pizza chains in an effort to boost cheese volumes included on each pizza.
Tom Vilsack, CEO and president of USDEC, called the COVID-19 pandemic a “gut punch,” especially for the dairy industry and dairy farmers who were hopeful 2020 would help them become more financially healthy. While U.S. dairy exports had shown year-over-year growth over the past six months (through February), countries importing U.S. dairy products now face many of the same challenges as those in the U.S. He said USDEC will enhance its foreign education and market presence, especially as it relates to cheese sales.
Vilsack said one of the main messages both home and abroad is that there are plenty of U.S. dairy products available, overcoming the impression there are shortages fueled by limits on per-customer purchases at retail grocery stores.
In response to a question, Gallagher and Vilsack said a temporary suspension of the dairy checkoff to aid dairy producers through current financial struggles would hurt a coordinated push between dairy policy, promotion and export organizations to work through the COVID-19 crisis.
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