As a new school year gets underway, one of the industry’s most impactful checkoff programs is launching an improved platform to better meet the nutritional and educational needs of the country’s next generation.

Coyne jenn
Editor / Progressive Dairy

After 13 years of the highly successful Fuel Up to Play 60 program, the National Dairy Checkoff is launching Fuel Up – a more comprehensive approach to incorporating dairy into children’s daily choices.

“First and foremost, we wanted to look at how schools have changed,” says Anne Warden, executive vice president and head of marketing, communications and affairs for Dairy Management Inc. (DMI). “Schools had new expectations on how nutrition was going to impact kids’ lives, and we had to find the intersection between that and what was good for dairy farmers. That’s exactly what we’ve done as we’ve evolved Fuel Up to Play 60 to Fuel Up.”

There are three key areas of improvement to the dairy-led school wellness program, including increased access to breakfast, how nutrition education is presented in schools – through science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) coursework and meal experiences – supporting the dairy industry’s ability to supply school milk, as well as a renewed interest in educating expecting and new parents.

“Research shows that what kids are consuming and experiencing in schools as it relates to dairy translates to milk consumption at home,” Warden says. “So we’ve really tried to surround youth and their parents to create that next generation of dairy lovers.”


Perhaps the most notable change to the program is shifting the partnership with the National Football League (NFL) to a no-cost collaboration, allowing other allied partners to participate; those such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, Mayo Clinic and School Nutrition Association, who have a vested interest in making sure dairy is a part of the nutrition children access at schools.

“As we looked at how things were changing in schools, particularly how much wellness has changed for kids, it’s not just about food choices equals activity,” Warden says. “It’s also about how nutrition drives academic success, how it drives mental wellness, how it drives a person’s ability to access a healthy, nutritious meal, and how all of that can lead to better public health outcomes.”

Vetted research proved a program change was necessary

On a nearly continual basis, the checkoff evaluates the effectiveness of its programs. In recent years, it became evident the school wellness program needed to pivot.

In the many ways the pandemic altered the way in which day-to-day life looked, schools were no exception.

“The pandemic gave us an opportunity to take a step back and look at how we are able to impact kids and how health and wellness were changing,” Warden says. “People became more conscious that nutrition wasn’t just calories in, calories out; it was a much wider vision. And there was a renewed appreciation for the schools’ role in that.”

Surveys were conducted with students, parents, teachers and curriculum developers across the nation to determine students’ needs, and if those needs could be addressed in school, would it lead to more dairy consumption.

The checkoff also reviewed ways in which dairy producers are already investing their resources to further increase sales and trust in dairy, and how the school wellness program complements those efforts.

“Before we take any first steps in investing our farmer-owner resources, we make sure the opportunity is really fine-tuned,” Warden says. “It was clear we needed to find a way to be even more impactful in schools but also make the investment farmers put into checkoff go further, delivering the greatest value for both kids and dairy farmers.”

The research revealed that dairy continues to have a strong place in schools, and by bringing in additional partners to the platform, it provides opportunity for local checkoff organizations to find solutions that best fit their schools.

“Every school has very unique needs, all depending on the community, the student population and the resources available,” Warden says. “By bringing in partners at the national and local level, we can really do a better job at what we’ve always done – putting the needs of the school in the center and figuring out where dairy can win.”

How Fuel Up will be seen in schools 

In collaboration with existing and future partners, the checkoff relaunched the school wellness program with a renewed focus on key areas that will have the greatest impact on driving dairy consumption and creating healthy living habits for youth across the country based on the research results.

“There are dozens of ways to change the school environment that could increase consumption,” Warden says. “We have calculated exactly where we can have the biggest impact, and I think that level of focus is what farmers have asked us to do.”

Research confirmed the need for increased access to breakfast in schools.

“It’s such a critical meal for kids in terms of achievement and helpfulness,” Warden says. “We’re finding new solutions to increase the number of kids consuming breakfast at their schools and making sure dairy is included in the menu.”

Students are offered milk, but there’s opportunity to make dairy’s healthy nutrition more available through smoothies and yogurt, for example. The industry’s partnership with food service companies will aid in this initiative by bringing schools those dairy foods, recipes and educational materials.  

Dairy’s benefits need to go beyond the cafeteria too. 

Recently, STEM education guidelines were adapted to include agriculture. To accompany this change, the checkoff has worked with curriculum writers to immerse those educators in multi-day on-farm experiences that take a closer look at dairy operations, including animal care and how milk is produced.

This summer initiative was intended to spark coursework conversations around dairy farming and dairy nutrition in the new school year.

“We’re focused on having the most modern teaching resources available for educators who want to include agriculture or dairy nutrition into their resources in order to make sure we're reaching those who are the most impressionable,” Warden says.

Creating lifelong habits that include dairy is not just a school strategy but rather a youth strategy that spans their entire lives. Through Fuel Up, a renewed emphasis has been placed on reaching expecting and new parents, particularly for those first 1,000 days of life where dairy nutrition could have a large impact on physical and cognitive development.

“This is about making sure kids have a positive experience with milk and dairy, that they're continuing to pull that through the rest of their lives,” Warden says.

The schools program will be supported through continued work with pediatricians and trusted sources that can provide science-based answers to these new parents, ensuring dairy is the primary choice in those children’s first cup.

While Fuel Up to Play 60 had a track record of success reaching over 40 million students in just over a decade, the improved Fuel Up platform is sure to deliver even greater results for the industry.  

"Farmers will see that it might not be the branded look and feel of Fuel Up to Play 60 as in the past, but we are reaching kids in the right way that ultimately is going to grow consumption not only in schools, but hopefully throughout their lifetime,” Warden says.