By Fran Howard
Annual U.S. per capita consumption of all categories of white fluid milk has dropped from about 170 pounds in 2003 to just under 150 pounds in 2013, according to USDA data. Consumption of flavored milks, once a promising growth category, has also tapered off to about 8.4 pounds per person after peaking at 8.7 pounds in 2003.
According to the Congressional Budget Office’s recently released 2015 baseline projections, spending on the two largest school meal programs — National School Lunch and School Breakfast—are expected to increase from a combined $15.5 billion this year to $23.2 billion by 2025.
At the same time, purchases for the Special Milk Program, which serves schools not in the other two programs, have declined dramatically to just over 61 million half pints in 2012. At its peak in the late 1960s, the program was serving nearly 3 billion half-pints each year.
The overall volume of milk being sold to schools and served in all programs accounts for about 7 percent of total milk sales and is a category that is also on the decline. The 2012-13 Annual School Survey, conducted by Prime Consulting Group for MilkPEP, shows that in the 2012-13 school year, 429 million gallons of milk were sold to schools, a drop of 23 million gallons or 5.1 percent from the previous year.
“Milk sold to schools has been declining since 2010,” says Cary Frye, vice president of regulatory affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association and a consultant for MilkPEP. Even though the survey is no longer being conducted, data from Prime Consulting indicates that milk sold to schools in the 2013-14 school year dropped an estimated 4.1 percent to 411 million gallons.
As required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, USDA realigned its school meal requirements in 2012 to meet new dietary guidelines. The new regulations require schools to serve only low-fat white, skim white, and skim-chocolate milks as well as fruits and vegetables with every meal. Even though USDA regulations state that an eight-ounce serving of milk must be offered with each meal, kids don’t have to take it.
The overall decline in milk consumption is attributed to a myriad of factors. “When USDA forced schools to only serve low-fat milk, skim milk, and skim-chocolate milk, kids pretty much began to reject those choices,” says Andy Novakovic, a dairy economist at Cornell University. A recent study conducted by the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs found that when chocolate milk was banned entirely and replaced with skim milk, students in Oregon took 10 percent less milk, wasted 29 percent more milk, and might have even stopped eating school meals altogether.
Participation in the school meal programs has also declined. According to Frye, participation has dropped 10 percent for paid meals and 3 percent overall since the new regulations went into effect.
With so many beverage choices available today, a share of both kids and adults are turning away from milk completely, says Novakovic. “The dairy industry calls it, ‘going down the fat ladder,’ and at some point people jump off the ladder.” For instance, he says, people raised on whole milk who are told by health professionals to cut their intake of saturated fat, might drink 2 percent, but if they are told to drink skim, they might just stop drinking any kind of milk.
Recent health studies have also shown that saturated fat is not as harmful to human health as earlier thought, but a share of people have already left the milk case. “That damage is pretty much done,” says Novakovic. “Once you lose a consumer, especially as a child, scientific evidence isn’t likely to bring them back.”
Last month, in response to what Starbucks called its second-largest customer request of all time, the coffee giant started offering coconut “milk” as a substitute to both cow’s milk and soy “milk” for its beverages sold in U.S. company-operated locations. The idea proposed on the company’s website generated more than 84,000 votes.
Starbucks' new offering of coconut milk, however, is nowhere near as healthy as cow's milk. Compared to milk, coconut ‘milk’ has 10 times as much saturated fat as whole milk (51 grams vs. 5 grams), is higher in calories (552 vs. 146 calories per cup), and offers significantly less protein (5 grams vs. 8 grams) and calcium (4% vs. 28%), according to NutritonData.com.
“The fact that there are all these choices out there is why some traditional products, like milk, are losing ground,” says Novakovic. People, including kids, make beverage choices based on a number of factors, including its ability to refresh, its nutrient density, and its ability to speed recovery after exercise, as well as mouth feel and taste.
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