Dairy farmers have felt the wrath of these interruptions to their everyday operations. So, too, have schools. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the School Nutrition Association (SNA) found 97% of schools report being challenged by higher costs and cite supply chain issues as a top concern.
Challenges at schools and with dairy suppliers include:
- Labor/staffing shortages
- Ingredient and packaging shortages
- Transportation constraints, which may affect delivery frequency
- Minimal refrigeration space
- Limited number of dairy suppliers
The critical role of school meals, and dairy’s role within them, cannot be overstated. Students who eat at school are more likely to consume milk, fruits and vegetables compared to those who eat elsewhere, according to the USDA.
In 2019, schools served 4.87 billion meals to 30 million children who participate in the lunch program, which translated to a lot of dairy consumption. That same year, 3.6 billion pounds of total dairy were served for breakfast, lunch and summer feeding programs. The majority was fluid milk (3.23 billion pounds), but cheese (250 million pounds) and yogurt and other dairy products (98 million pounds) also hold a firm place.
In an average year, about 74% of students who participate in school meals receive them for free or at a reduced price. However, for school year 2021-22, the USDA declared all students will have access to healthy meals free of charge as the pandemic threatens the food and nutrition security of our most vulnerable population. That’s great news because for many kids, it may be their lone meal of the day, as 1 in 6 face food insecurity.
This urgency is not lost on the farmer-founded National Dairy Council (NDC) and the 16 state and regional teams that represent farmers across the country.
When the USDA raised a concern last fall regarding dairy supply chain challenges in schools, NDC met with the National Milk Producers Federation, International Dairy Foods Association and MilkPEP. As a result, NDC created the Milk: School Supply Chain Challenges & Solutions resource and shared it across the state and regional federation and with SNA, USDA and industry partners.
The resource highlights the importance of school meals and milk, supply chain challenges and solutions to help mitigate them, focusing on regulatory/waiver flexibilities around milk. For example, schools may ask state agencies to waive the meal requirements to serve more than one variety (fat level or flavor) along with the requirement that low-fat milk be unflavored.
In December, the USDA announced $1.5 billion will go to school feeding programs to address supply chain disruptions. The USDA will provide $1 billion for schools to purchase food for their programs and $300 million for states to purchase foods to be distributed to schools. Another $200 million will be used for cooperative agreements to purchase foods with a focus on buying from historically underserved producers.
The USDA made specific mention of milk and cheese among the “minimally processed foods” that could be purchased by schools.
With this being such a fluid situation and the potential for misunderstandings, Katie Bambacht, vice president of school nutrition for National Dairy Council, has provided clarity to local checkoffs on waiver situations and other issues.
“Every school district is local, and the local dairy councils are working hard to help mitigate issues. They are living and breathing it,” Bambacht said. “The dairy councils hold relationships with the USDA’s regional offices and with state agencies, which provide oversight to school feeding programs.
“It’s critical to have those relationships so you can offer checkoff support and resources, such as our handout, that they can disseminate throughout their state.”
Julie Mattson Ostrow, a registered dietitian who is vice president of dairy experience – wellness for Midwest Dairy, said the organization continues to monitor supply chain issues.
She said some “brush fires” have popped up across the organization’s nine-state region but credits established relationships for offering solutions and resources to districts.
“One of the biggest things farmers should know is: We work very hard as relationship builders and the convener that brings people together,” Mattson Ostrow said. “And while it may seem obvious these different entities are connected and talking, that isn’t always the case. I’m proud to say Midwest makes sure we have relationships with our departments of education and agriculture and other agencies where we can distribute information across the board.
“These are very much two-way relationships where these organizations see the checkoff as a valuable resource and reach out to us as well.”
Karen Doster, director of youth and school programs at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, shared a similar account, citing a strong relationship with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction School Nutrition Programs.
“They know who we are, and we know who they are, and if there’s ever any issues that arise around milk, I always let them know to please keep me informed,” Doster said. “I can help with the relationships we have with schools and other entities.”
Bambacht said despite the challenges of the last two years, dairy’s value in children’s diets has not lost its place. She said a 2018 survey with school nutrition professionals shows they trust the industry to provide safe products and they feel cow’s milk is part of a healthy diet.
“The importance of milk at schools is understood,” she said. “It is the only food that’s specifically required to be offered and we, along with dairy farmers, are very proud of that.
“We have a long history in child nutrition and, despite the interruptions, we’ll continue doing what we can to help students get the nutrition they need through milk’s unique nutrient contributions.”
Your Dairy Checkoff in Action – The following update is provided by Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), which manages the national dairy checkoff program on behalf of America’s dairy farmers and dairy importers. DMI is the domestic and international planning and management organization responsible for increasing sales of and demand for dairy products and ingredients.