The Complicated Side of Local

I got the call on Monday. Tom Weighner was on the other end. “I think we finally got everything figured out to do the local milk taste-test at the middle school. Just wanted you to know,” he said.


He was calling about an idea that we had been kicking around for some time. Most colleges and institutional food service use bulk milk dispensers in their cafeterias. It seems natural to ask the question about their use in public schools.


Especially in Waukon. If there is a dairy processing plant in town, shouldn’t it be easy to serve their milk in school?


According to the Jeffers Foundation, the advantages of serving bulk milk in schools outweighs the disadvantages.

  • Reduced cost for milk
  • Students indicate that cold milk from a dispenser tastes better
  • Less work for the custodians to handle waste and recycling
  • Lower energy costs
  • Milk stays cold and at a constant temperature
  • Can reduce the amount of milk wasted each day


Unfortunately, navigating the barriers to make this simple connection are complicated.

  • The current milk package is an 8 ounce carton. Paper carton containers require unique machinery, and the processor needs to have a large volume of customers interested in that size before investing in the expensive packaging equipment. There is a reason why you see all the same milk in schools across the region.
  • Milk contracts for schools need to go through a competitive bidding process.
  • School food regulations. In order to count toward a reimbursable meal, the milk needs to be taken before the kids pay for their lunch. This is hard to do in a self-serve milk model.
  • In order to make this program sustainable, dishwasher-safe plastic cups would need to be purchased as well as the dishwasher racks to clean and sterilize the cups each day.
  • Concerns about spills and waste

taste test comp

When I arrived at the school, the food service ladies had the two-valve milk dispenser cleaned up and shining like new. There was a large box of disposable cups next to the dispenser, and Tom and his daughter Liz were loading bags of milk into the machine.


Andrew, the FFI AmeriCorps member, created a chart to poll the students after they had sampled either the skim white or skim chocolate milk from WW Homestead Dairy. They were asked to indicate their preference – carton milk or bulk milk.


taste test chart compTo say that the kids loved the milk was an understatement. Many asked for seconds (or thirds). It was also fun to hear some of the fans at the beginning of the lunch line, “Oh! Is this WW milk? I love that milk!”


By the end of lunch, and fueled by the positive response from the kids, the team brainstormed ideas to move this concept forward. For one, we would need a larger machine with more spigots so students could serve themselves.


We also had a discussion of what success looks like. We all agreed that it probably isn’t local milk for lunch every day (at least not in the short term) – but what would it look like to offer the local option once a month?


taste test vote compIn my research, the schools that are looking at bulk dispensers are moving in that direction as a step toward environmental sustainability (less waste, less energy) and better nutrition in the form of more milk consumption. To illustrate, if 75% of the Allamakee student body drinks a carton of milk every day, that means 152,640 milk cartons go in the trash each year.


In the Food and Fitness world, we get most excited about the “local” connection. The Midwest Dairy Council says that all milk is local – it goes from farm to factory to school in a matter of days. It is amazing how our food system can make all those connections in a short amount of time.


But for me, “local” means more. It is being able to trace that food back to its source and to have a conversation with the farm family that produced it that makes it special. It’s that connection to a business that has navigated all the regulations to provide a product that they can serve to the kids at their school.


The Allamakee School District does a wonderful job of connecting students to their food – and their farmers – through Farm to School activities, field trips and school lunch. Could this be the next step in their journey?


New London-Spicer High School Case Study (Minnesota)
School Food Waste Prevention Strategies
Jeffers Foundation – Waste Reduction Awareness Program
Video: Milk Dispensers at Olympia School District (Washington)

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