Nov. 14, while waiting in the Phoenix airport during a layover, I notice how many travelers are reading the USA Today newspaper. On this particular day, I can’t help but notice if anyone is reading page 12A.

A letter-to-the-editor appears from Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who said the milk group should be removed from the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid “given the strong association between the consumption of dairy products and prostrate cancer.”

How many gullible readers will see the name of Barnard’s organization and think that it is actually a reputable medical group?  PCRM is simply a front organization for the animal-rights movement. 

Shortly after Barnard’s letter appeared, Dairy Management Inc., a checkoff-funded milk promotion group responded by informing USA Today’s editors of PCRM’s true nature. DMI also took the opportunity to underscore the health benefits of dairy products.

This is just one example of the day-to-day struggle that is taking place for the hearts and minds of consumers. In many cases, we have relied on our checkoff organizations, like DMI, to fight the battle for us. That is all well and good, for DMI certainly has the staff and resources to tell dairy’s story effectively.

But, as dairy producers, you can play an important role in the promotion effort, too.  For instance, you can ask your local school board to acquire milk vending machines. Vending machines have already proven successful in many school districts, boosting milk sales and giving young people a favorable impression of dairy products.

Be supportive of the dairy checkoff. An article on page 26 of this month’s issue details the good things accomplished by the checkoff. In 1980 — shortly before the checkoff took effect — per capita commercial disappearance of dairy products was 518.4 pounds. (That represents how much fluid milk and cheese the average person consumed on a milk-equivalent basis.) By 2001, the number had grown to 580.4 pounds — a 12 percent increase. 

Yes, milk prices aren’t what we would like. But, things would be a whole lot worse had we not had the checkoff.

Until recently, cheese was the engine that drove milk prices and kept them fairly respectable. Now, that engine has slowed down — due, in large part, to a softening of the national economy.  Fewer people eat out in restaurants when times get tough, and it hasn’t helped, either, that the retail price of cheese in grocery stores has remained relatively high.

Now, more than ever, we need to promote our product, and perhaps push new product categories, like yogurt, more aggressively. And, let’s be more creative with milk flavors — beyond the traditional white, strawberry and chocolate.

We all can play a part — even it is simply reminding our neighbors and friends about the healthful aspects of dairy products. Know what the research says about dairy products, and how milk consumption has been proven to reduce the risk of certain cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer.

And, when traveling through airports, watch what the people are reading. Perhaps that person sitting next to you on the plane will need a reminder, too.