The Uncertain Future for Fluid Milk Demand During COVID-19 School Year

Fluid School Milk Demand Betsy Jibben 9 29 20
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service is calling for dairy prices to be up 3% to 4% this year. Demand for dairy is also an issue right now with school food programs representing roughly 7% of the nation’s fluid milk volume annually, according to Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Dairy Management Incorporated says roughly 7.5% of fluid milk demand is from K-12 demand.

AgDay national reporter, Betsy Jibben, reports the pandemic is cutting into that demand at school districts across the country.

Cars arrive at Marshall Middle School in the Janesville, Wisconsin School District to pick up free, school lunches for students out of the classroom.

It's a unique year for the district, offering face-to-face and virtual schooling. It's also a transition when it comes to handling its school meals.

"It's a very fluid situation,” says Jim Degan, the school nutrition manager for the Janesville School District. “Things change week to week. We could be delivering meals in the near future."

Degan’s job of preparing, ordering and working with contractors for meal plans is not like any year in the past.

"We have to take into consideration [if] that a shelf-stable item,” says Degan. “Is it individually wrapped? Can we purchase individually wrapped instead of having our staff do it?"

He says the total number of students eating school meals is down district-wide.

"Typically, in years past, I would have served 10,000 meals per day [for] breakfast and lunch,” says Degan. “Now, we're on the order of 6,500 to 7,000 per day. It's still really good but it's a 30% drop in milk."

Milk is a required meal component to be offered for USDA’s School Nutrition Programs which includes the National School Lunch Program the School Breakfast Program the Summer Food Service Program and the Seamless Summer Option.

The Janesville District is still using the Summer Food Service Program, thanks to USDA's free meal program extension. Milk isn't just offered but given in every bag in this district. Yet, a small number of e-learners are picking up meals in this district. Out of all the students participating in e-learning, Degan says only 6 to 7 percent are taking advantage of free meals they can pick up.

Dairy demand isn't just uncertain for Wisconsin schools but nationwide.

"Some [districts] made announcements [making announcements such as] we're out of school until the end of November,” says Paul Ziemnisky, executive vice president of global innovation partnerships with Dairy Management Incorporated. “So, they were able to determine purchasing . For others, it's week-by-week."

Ziemnisky says DMI has hosted webinars to explain how "Grab-‘N-Go" and "Low Contact" may be the best meal options this year.  Most of those meals have a dairy component like packaged yogurt or cheese. However, it may be too premature to determine if demand is picking up for those products nationwide.

"[Those packaged lunches] bide well for things like string cheese,” says Karen Doster, the director of youth and school programs for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “String cheese has always been popular in school meals but even more now.”

“It makes it a little easier to run the day for the kids so we can have everything ready for us,” says Maryellen Sullivan, a parent picking up lunches.

As some parents and caregivers continue to pick up meals, this school district knows they're providing as best they can despite the uncertainties ahead in 2020.

"The more meals we can serve, the better off our community is,” says Degan.

The Janesville School District uses a truckload of cheese during a normal year, which is roughly 40,000 pounds. Degan says USDA's extended meal program has been a help, but it only runs through the end of the 2020.

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