EPISODE 2 – What is the #1 factor driving school milk consumption?

Listen to episode 2 of Your Dairy Checkoff Podcast where farmer hosts Alex Peterson and Audrey Donahoe join a school food service director and research expert in a conversation on how school milk is sourced and served to students.


Alex Peterson – MO Dairy Farmer and NDB Board Chair

Audrey Donahoe – NDC and ADANE Chair, and NY Dairy Farmer

Episode Guests 

Mark Bordeau, Director of Food Services Broome-Tioga BOCES

Doug Adams, President of Prime Consulting Group

Podcast Transcription below:

Unknown Speaker 0:00
What is the most requested by these kids in school? Well, you know,

Unknown Speaker 0:04
the school environment is where students get to make a choice without either mom over their shoulder and without question. Three quarters of the choice, in most cases is a flavored milk. The flavors are the number one factor that students always come back to.

Unknown Speaker 0:33
Hello, folks and welcome to another episode of your dairy checkoff podcast. I’m Alex Peterson, a dairy farmer from Missouri and one of the hosts for today’s episode. Joining me in hosting is Audrey Donahoe, dairy farmer from New York and chairman of the National Dairy Council. Today, we’re going to be talking about milk in schools, which is a hot button issue and important issue and issue close to home to literally everyone in the country. And it holds a special place in the hearts of dairy farmers across the country, because of the communities that we serve. Joining us today, we’re going to be talking to Mark fordo, who’s the food service director at Binghamton area schools. Mark is responsible for 33,000 School feedings a day. And we’re also joined by Doug Adams. He provides important data on school milk consumption, and works with processors on supply data to make the best decision for school milk programs. So today, in our conversation, we’re going to learn about how school milk is regulated, managed and served to students to maybe shine some light on how the whole system works. First, I want to ask Doug, just to introduce himself a little bit, give a little background, and what led to him working in the line of work he’s working in now. Alex, thank

Unknown Speaker 1:51
you. It’s a pleasure to be with you. And, you know, I have had roughly 20 years working in the dairy industry. with Brian consulting, we have had the good fortune to work with dairy management, Inc, with milk Pep, and about 12 of the different states and regions, along with now, about 20 different states have School Nutrition Association chapters, focusing on how do you measure the results? How’s milk doing in schools? What’s the opportunities for improvement? And what led me to this was really a fascinating desire to help get cause and effect understood, and say, What are the things that can be done to maximize performance to increase student’s consumption of milk?

Unknown Speaker 2:41
Thank you. And Mark, how about a little background on on what brought you to that to the school food service industry.

Unknown Speaker 2:48
The pleasure to be here with you today, thanks for having me. And so I work for an organization called group Tiger Bo C’s in the southern tier of New York State. And we have cooperatives where school districts buy services from both from BOCES. And I’m the Senior Director of food services. we oversee child nutrition programs from 15 school districts in the southern tier of New York State. On the average, we serve 13,000 breakfast every day, and over 20,000 lunches on a daily basis. Along with that we do at school snacks, school supper, and we serve meals all summer long. I’m also the past president of New York School Nutrition Association. And for me, I was blessed actually how I got started the program. 30 years ago, my mom actually saw an ad in the paper. And I’ve actually worked at a local restaurant. And she saw an ad in the paper and said, you know, school food service looks like a great opportunity for you want to apply at a young family. And so I applied for the job and back in 1990 and started a career in school nutrition, a career that I absolutely love. I’ve been loaded for 30 years. And it’s a program that I think has a major impact on the on the folks that we serve each and every day.

Unknown Speaker 4:03
Well, that was great hearing from you guys, Doug and mark. And as Alec said, I’m Audrey Donahoe, and I’m a dairy farmer from New York. What programs does your State offers to support the reimbursement for those school meals? And does that support covered dairy? And are there similar programs in other states? Can you share with us a little bit about that?

Unknown Speaker 4:25
Two years ago, New York State passed the most robust Farm to School program in the nation. And basically what that does is incentivize schools to purchase locally grown, and processed food items. So if an item is 51% of an item is contained in New York foods in item, we can count it towards that 30%. And if on a yearly basis, 30% of those foods come from New York State, New York State will give us an additional 19 cents a meal to help pay for those costs. Like I said earlier, you know, almost 30% of foods that I purchased were from New York state, including dairy. Dairy was a major part of that. Of that 38% of those near grown proc foods, almost 25% of that was dairy items, including milk. And there are other items Michigan has a similar program. Vermont is in the process of starting a program in California recently passed legislation for a similar program to incentivize schools to buy locally grown products, including dairy items.

Unknown Speaker 5:34
How do you see milk as a food service director? Is it just the absolute critical cornerstone of the meal? Is it something that you because of the system you have to make do the best you can? Or is it something that is an incredible logistical pain because of keeping it fresh and cold and ready to go to moment’s notice? How does melt play into your day? Is it a stress reliever or a stress causer

Unknown Speaker 6:02
milk is an extremely important part of our business. school food service is a business, you know we are we are regulated by USDA, but we are still a restaurant with inside those schools. And so so milk is our beverage that we must serve as part of the USDA requirements. But it’s a we want to make sure we’re serving in the best possible environment with the largest variety we can. Because if we don’t, our customers will come in the door. You know, so so milk is part of what we do. But we we take pride in serving milk in a variety of ways. You know, we serve traditional, you know, nonfat and 1% milk, we serve as multiple flavors that we can, but we also try to mix it up, you know, we we do smoothies, you know, we do strawberry smoothies, peach smoothies, blueberry smoothies, we serve chocolates at breakfast, you know, so again, trying to have that atmosphere of a restaurant and a fine dining experience as much as we could in schools. It becomes part of our strategic and business plan to do the best we can to serve it in many varieties possible for our students.

Unknown Speaker 7:16
Doug, how does what you do? Help Mark do what he needs to do?

Unknown Speaker 7:22
That’s a great question. It couldn’t wait to connect us together, we generally get involved in helping, like in this case, the American dairy Association northeast, taking the milk data from the individual processors and school districts and looking at how many milk servings a student gets over the course of a given time. And what are the variables that affect that? Is it the extra offering of hot chocolate in the morning? Is it the different flavors like having a strawberry or if a vanilla is available? Or what about it using as an ingredient to make a smoothie? And then how is it merchandised. And so we take all the data and tried to look at it to be able to provide guidance back through the state and region to people like Mark to say, we found in other areas that if you do X, you can get four more servings per student or whatever it is, and in essence giving them ideas of how to make it fun and exciting. Because Mark’s exactly right. He’s running a restaurant, he’s got to have the customers interested in finding it enthusiastic and fun. And how do you make milk be fun is means there’s a variety of different offerings and ways of merchandising. And and so that’s how we help people like Mark and the states and regions that support the dairy farmers to be able to have these ideas and then to share them across different school districts.

Unknown Speaker 8:53
And can you share with us what is the most requested by these kids in school? As far as the milk whether it’s flavored? Or like what is or non flavored? What’s the most requested by these students? Well, you know,

Unknown Speaker 9:10
the school environment is where students get to make a choice without either mom over their shoulder or too much of the you know, within a range of what the school offers. And without question, three quarters of the choice, in most cases is a flavored milk. So white milk is 25 or 30%. Some districts it’s higher depending upon what they offer, but they like flavors. flavors are how they express themselves. And so the range of flavors being offered. And we find that for instance, if a district had been offering fat free flavors and they change it to 1% they will see an 8% increase in their chocolate milk sales and a 2% increase in overall milk consumption from getting back to 1% because the mouthfeel and the taste is better. So there’s a variety of those things, packages plays into it. But at the end of the day, it’s the taste. It’s the flavor. And it’s if they want it cold, obviously, it needs to be cold. But flavors are the number one factor that students always come back to time and

Unknown Speaker 10:24
time again. Can I add to what Doug said? He’s exactly right. You know, we’ve back in 2010, it was passed, the healthy, hunger free Kids Act was passed where we were supposed to serve flavored milk. We had to use nonfat milk for flavored milk. And we did see milk consumption decrease. So two years ago, we were given the option to offer 1% flavored milk again, we nearly jumped on that we started there 1% flavored milk. And we saw a tremendous increase in milk consumption, because we brought that that 1% back, students were thankful, they were very happy, they consumed it, it was not going, you know, we saw less waste of this of the flavored milk. It just became a very popular drink again, with our students when we bought back that 1% flavor. So So Doug’s numbers are right on the money. That’s exactly what happened when we brought back 1% of flavored milk. Mark, thanks

Unknown Speaker 11:23
for sharing that. That’s one of the things that gives me great joy is seeing how the analysis and information can carry through the improvement of bringing back 8% bringing back 1% flavors getting an 8% increase, and to 2% overall milk consumption. That’s an a tremendous example of applying the analysis and and getting it the learnings to happen across different districts. So what Mark applies, we get to then help take elsewhere for others to benefit from.

Unknown Speaker 11:57
So Doug, what would you say from your intelligence? is the number one reason why kids don’t take a milk? And is there anything we can do to to attack that? Well, that’s

Unknown Speaker 12:11
a good question. It’s can take it several different directions. But let me offer a couple of tactical and then I’ll start with a strategic, the strategic is if they haven’t had a good experience with milk previously. And we’ve got to get them to reconsider taking milk. And that can come in a number of forms, whether it be the the flavor, and its taste, the temperature, the but then there are also a number of students who increasingly are concerned about whether they have medical issues to deal with such as lactose intolerance. And so it’s really hard for schools to offer lactose free milk in in the normal form of regular milk because they don’t go through enough of it. So some of them have opted to go for a shelf stable, lactose free milk so that it doesn’t go bad in and out of code, but it has a longer code life. So there’s there can be lactose issues. At the same time. Some of it has to do with the student’s preference for taste and flavors. fat levels can play into it in a very interesting way. There are some students who are used to having higher fat levels at home and they know it doesn’t taste the same at school. And so helping to bridge that gap is part of it as well.

Unknown Speaker 13:39
That’s great, Doug, let’s go back to you, Mark. We’ll rewind to a little over a year ago when the pandemic hit and everything got shut down. So through the COVID, how did school meals shift? And, you know, like, what did you guys do to support the students and their families through the pandemic? And where we’re at now, moving forward? You said a lot of kids are back in session. So like, what did you guys do to adjust and shift to being shut down but still feeding those children?

Unknown Speaker 14:13
Great question, Audrey. And we literally shifted overnight. I remember, Friday, I think was like March 13. We’re normally in school, you know the first COVID case and just started to come in New York State. And, you know, I was talking to my superintendent. He thought, Well, I think we might be okay. But once you start to develop a plan, the next morning, all 50 school districts were meeting with our county officials and saying We’re shutting down schools. You need have a plan by Monday morning to feed our kids. So we had 48 hours to go from feeding over 30,000 kids in a school setting to basically curbside pickup in a matter of 48 hours and we did it in the show Matt And literally it went from, you know, the kids coming into the school to our staff prepping the meals. in a safe environment, we had to make sure our staff was as safe as possible. But then bringing the meals outside and having the families drive up and grab the wheel pull away. You know, as the spring went on, we changed our model. You know, we tried to deliver what was possible, we are doing today we pick up to change it to a weekly pick up with seven days worth of meals, we do both meals, which include half gallons of white milk and half gallons of chocolate milk in those bulk meals. We end up reaching and serving on the average about 16,000 meals a day, through the pandemic, literally pandemic when I say in the spring of 2020. So we didn’t reach all our families at the time. So now we’re serving that. But we also became a food hub for our community, we work diligently to try to bring as much food as possible to our families. And our thanks to our many partners throughout the community, including Dairy Farmers of America and American dairy northeast. Thanks to this both organizations between April and August, we’re able to hand out a quarter million gallons of milk to our families above and beyond the meals that we gave out to our kids. Altogether, we gave out about $2 million in additional food. Above and Beyond the 16,000 meals we served every single day. One school started back up in the fall, we serve meals every way possible. You know, we serve meals in the cafeteria, the gyms, classroom hallways, we often hand the meals to kids as they’re leaving the building, where gravel goes slicer families, they could still pick up meals, we delivered meals to kids who are learning at home. If there was a way to get a meal to a child and the family, we would I have to say I’m so proud of the family of my team. They’ve worked diligently, you know, since March of 2020. to really provide for our families and go above and beyond. It’s been a tiring year, we’re seeing an end to it where hopefully, by September, we’re probably hopefully be almost back to normal as normal can be in this stage of the game. Yeah, that’s

Unknown Speaker 17:24
great. Mark, thank you for sharing that with us. So, Doug, that leads me to a question that I have for you. What has been the most interesting thing you’ve learned about school meals? And what surprised you the most about that?

Unknown Speaker 17:38
Great question. I think I think on one level, I’d say I’m really impressed by how the controlled chaos that occurs in the cafeteria translates into the feeding of kids and feeding of them well, how organizations like Mark, you know, people like Mark and his team are able to manage the human interaction and the at times difficult to organize, nice and corral kids who this is their coming out of the classroom time, and yet have them get good nutrition. So I think that’s been one of the most interesting things to me, along with the fact that there are so many areas of possible innovation, I helped to manage a test where a whole meal, particularly around breakfast was vended in one pole out of a vending machine. And so therefore, the ability to serve kids, even outside the cafeteria, you know, we’re just some of the creativity of breakfast after the bell or Breakfast in the Classroom, different service models, as a way to serve the students was because after all, if you think about it, and what what I know all the dairy farmers listening recognize is that the whole goal of school milk is not only current new trician. But it’s also to establish these students soon to be adults, in their regular habits of consuming milk, and understanding the value that dairy plays in their quality of their diet as an adult, and eventually as a parent. And so the school plays an important part in helping to teach that to to them. So I’d say that’s been one of the most interesting and exciting things for me is the areas of innovation. And yet at the same time doing it all in that controlled chaos kind of environment.

Unknown Speaker 19:30
I like to kind of piggyback off what Doug was saying with innovation. Back just five years ago, I mentioned earlier, we served about 30,000 breakfast a day. Just five years ago, we were serving about 6000 breakfasts a day. And I was meeting with our partners of Americans or Association northeast, and I was telling him you know, it’s challenging to get kids the breakfast. And so they brought some experts in and talk to our superintendents about breakfast after the bell and Breakfast after the bell has amazing impact on the education environment for students. And from that education session, my soup tenants bought in completely on breakfast after the bell. We start serving breakfast in the classroom, we started vending machines, where as Doug talks about where kids can go up and get a complete breakfast out a vending machine, we did grab and go breakfast. And through that we went from 6000 breakfast a day. Like I said earlier, almost 13,000 breakfast a day because I innovation, because our partners who educated my superintendents on the importance of breakfast after the bell, without without that, we probably still be serving the initial breakfast and serving 6000 bucks a day. So that innovation that Doug talks about is tremendous and has an amazing impact on. Mark,

Unknown Speaker 20:51
I know you’re a leader in your industry, how well do improvements in in strategies at your level? How well are they shared with other districts? And across the country? Is there a pretty good conduit of information back and forth between food service directors and and superintendents to make sure that good improvements like what you’re talking about? I can get implemented far and wide quickly? Or is it more of a pocket situation?

Unknown Speaker 21:22
No, we have many channels of opportunity to share information. As I said earlier on in the past president of the New York School Nutrition Association. And that association has conferences, you know, and workshops where we able to share all the great things with fellow directors of what we’re we’re able to do. There’s many opportunities to go to workshops, American dairy northeast sponsors, many educational workshops for us to attend and learn from our partners and other districts of the great things that they’re doing. Business, they should sometimes has the same thing. I had the opportunity to present at multiple task forces and beneficial conference, talking about the great things we’re doing to, you know, serve our kids in the best way possible. So there’s many ways and many opportunities to share the great news and expand their horizons. And we’ve done that and we’ve done a great, I think we’ve done a great job at it.

Unknown Speaker 22:16
You know, if I could just jump in on the end of Mark’s answer. There’s a there’s various times where the different states and regional organizations in the national organization during management are involved in doing pilots, and then communicating out the results of that are trying different things, some of which will work, but some of which won’t. And sometimes it’s the things that don’t work that leads you to other things that do work. And so for instance, right now we’re in the middle of helping to operate manage a couple of pilots around the country one is on when we can get back in schools, the idea of dispensers, so the students dispensing their own glass of milk and getting back to cups that are that are washed, as opposed to throw away packages. And the other is shelf stable packaging, which helps to overcome some of the problems of short shelf life, delivery frequency, refrigerator, space, etc. And these are examples of innovation that are being tried to see and then coming out of it, as Mark said, all those vehicles by where you share the results are most important. And that’s what a lot of energy by people like, you know, secondary northeast and other states and regions go into communicating that to school districts. So they come in and help them assess where are they? And where could they get to. And what’s that worth by taking results from pilots that people like Mark and others have run and being able to show them what it could mean to their own operation.

Unknown Speaker 23:53
I can’t wait to get back and started literally, one week when we shut down on March March 16 of 2020. March 24 we were going to start our milk both pilot program. So we had all the equipment we were ready to go. And we had to close one week before I started so I can’t wait to get back to normal to pot it both Malkin and see the excitement in the kid’s face when they can go up and and grab and dispenser old chocolate milk and their own white milk. So I can’t wait for that to happen, don’t you right?

Unknown Speaker 24:26
What do you think the future of school milk would look like? If we have some successful pilot programs? You know, what do you see in the future of school milk if some of these are very successful?

Unknown Speaker 24:39
Okay, so I’ll put a big, hairy, audacious goal out there for everybody. Today, if you look at the number of meals that students have at school, lunch and breakfast, milk is about is a part of about 52% of those meals. What does that mean? That means that if we’re successful in making it more exciting, cooler, easier from a supply chain perspective, we could literally almost double the amount of milk the students consume in schools. So to me, that’s where I think we could go.

Unknown Speaker 25:21
I love Doug’s enthusiasm. And I can’t say it better I, you know, we, we have potential to grow tremendously. And that’s and that’s what we’re trying to do. That’s why we do you know, the smoothies why we do the hot chocolate, you know why we look for any innovative ways to serve our milk, the best way possible, you know, we do we do milk temperature checks, make sure our coolers are the proper temperature, anything we can do, to serve the milk in the best possible way in the largest right, if possible to our students, we want to do it because we know how important that milking is to the healthy growth of a child both mentally and physically. So you know, with folks like Doug and American dairy, ne we will try anything to increase our milk consumption, we’re doing a great job, I think our number is a little higher, I think we’re around 60% of our meals we serve have a milk. So I think we’re doing a great job. But it does said, we have room to grow as well. And I’m excited about the future.

Unknown Speaker 26:22
Not to not to damp and all the bright rosy future talk. But having did a stint on the school board. I know the situation that mark is in. In the school district. arena budgets are King. So Mark, as we talk about ways to innovate and upgrade to Doug’s point, which is to make sure that these next year as consumers have a really good experience with with milk and dairy products. How big of a challenge is the budget issue of implementing these potentially new streams of getting dairy into kids and making that a good and positive experience?

Unknown Speaker 27:07
Oh, so for me, again, going back to the business model, is we are a business. And we have to look at the overall big picture of the business. A little expensive to serve some larger varieties. Absolutely. But at the same time, is bringing more customers in the door. more customers in the door need more revenue, more revenue I bring in, the more variety more options I can do. And so I look at as it’s not an expense, but is it something I have to do in order to grow my business with my customers? So it’s not even a factor My mind is more expensive. It’s a matter of what we bring the customers in the door within the business model I have and what is my pricing structure? and 99% of time it is the biggest challenge we have and Doug talked about earlier is you know, delivery models right now, you know, there’s a tremendous shortage, labor shortage in the market. And some of our dairies, it’s challenging for them to find a driver. So some of the dairies wanted to switch to delivering milk one day a week. So we’re having the challenge of storing the milk, you know, where you find all this refrigeration. It’s a bigger challenge to rotate that milk, we have so much volume coming in at once. So right now, that labor shortage is probably one of our biggest challenges is, you know, the delivery model that we’re in not sustainable, long term to continue to receive milk once a weekend delivery, you know, so that’s something we had to figure out a way to overcome. That’s probably one of my biggest challenges right now I see. For us anyways,

Unknown Speaker 28:47
you know, you know, Mark, one of the things that we’ve run into, because we’ve done cost modeling with a number of districts on that. And you’re right, there are challenges that exist over what’s the cost of delivering the milk from the processor, most schools have no idea how much of what they pay for milk is really delivery, driver wages, fuel cost operation of the truck. At the same time, most schools don’t realize how much they spend beyond the cost of the milk in handling and moving around. And things like the empty crates, after the service, things like that. So, you know, it’s going to take a collaborative effort on the part of processors and school districts to really understand where are the ways that cost could be redeployed for more value, and that more value is ends up in terms of the getting the customers in the door and them having a better experience. And so I’m excited to run across mark and food service directors like him who are very willing to experiment and to try because it’s from that that we really end up getting tremendous learning And being able to apply elsewhere because you sort of forge the path for others to follow.

Unknown Speaker 30:06
Thank you guys. Mark. Doug, any other thoughts?

Unknown Speaker 30:10
One thing I would like to share with the audience today that, you know, I get the question a lot is, why didn’t whole milk serve in schools? I get it a lot. You know why, you know, why not. And as I mentioned earlier, we are heavily regulated by USDA. And our school programs are reauthorized are supposed to be reauthorized by Congress every five years. The last time we were authorized, was back in 2010. And that reauthorization is stated that the Milken schools are supposed to be, you know, 1% or less in flavored milk was supposed to be nonfat. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen those studies where, you know, there’s a good statement is to say, maybe school should be at least maybe, in younger grade levels, serving whole milk. And I agree, I think is the science is starting to show that maybe we should have a whole milk at the younger age level for kids.

Unknown Speaker 31:09
That’s great, Mark. Well, I would add to it is to say, as we both had been talking back and forth about the role of innovation, not being stuck in this is the way it’s always been. And that goes on a lot of fronts, it goes to the type of product, the fat level that Mark was mentioned goes to flavors, it goes to package type, delivery models serve as models, of reimagining of the whole system is going on in a number of districts where they have gotten very creative and change quite a number of things. And they’re getting tremendous results. And so being open to change and being looking at it with the goal of improving the children’s nutrition and their health. And obviously, from the standpoint of the dairy industry, helping establish those habits for students to be you know, good. Having a good portion of their diet have dairy in it is a key part of what the dairy industry seeks. And if your eyes good nutrition, it also gives an enjoyable experience. And I think good nutrition enjoyable experience ought to be the end goals. All the way around. And yes, it’s still a business and yes, you got to fit within the economics. But as Mark has said several times, having happy customers and having them have good nutrition and a great experience. That’s that’s a great goal for us to all be aiming for with all the different things that we do.

Unknown Speaker 32:41
Thank you, Mark, and Doug for joining us on a great discussion on milk in schools. It’s been an interesting conversation. And I’d also like to thank Audrey Donahoe, my co host and farmer friend for being being a willing participant today. If you want to hear more about this your dairy checkoff podcast, you can subscribe on your favorite podcast platforms including Stitcher, Spotify and iTunes and you can check out our website dairy checkoff podcast.com to make sure you don’t miss any future episodes. Until next time, have a great day.

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