More milk, less waste
McLeod County ADA teams up with school districts to provide beverage dispensers
Hutchinson High School agriculture teacher Scott Marshall (left) and dairy farmer Leah Kurth (right) help students use the milk-dispensing machine at the high school Feb. 1 in Hutchinson, Minnesota. The McLeod County ADA helped sponsor the new machine. PHOTO BY JENNIFER COYNE
HUTCHINSON, Minn. – Students lined the cafeteria as they waited their turn to use the school’s new milk dispenser at Hutchinson High School Feb. 1. And when the students were done with lunch, they came back for a second, sometimes a third, helping of milk.
“We’re winning,” Kevin Buss said. “These kids are sitting down and having conversation around milk. That’s pretty cool.”
Buss, a dairy farmer from Hutchinson, worked with the school district and Minnesota Department of Agriculture grant funds to provide the high school with a milk dispenser to be used during lunch hours. The dispensers were also installed in the Dassel-Cokato and Litchfield school districts, which share the same food service as Hutchinson.
Each high school has one dispenser that has the option to serve milk from three spouts during the lunch hours. Not only has this method encouraged consumption, with fresh dairy provided by a local creamery, it has also eliminated some use of cartons and significantly reduced waste, as noted in just the first week of the program launching.
At Hutchinson High School, 555 students were served on that first day with only 2 quarts of milk dumped with the lunch trays, according to the school.
Lesli Mueller is the director of child nutrition for the three school districts.
“This is so new, but I have a feeling this is going to be a really good thing for the students,” she said.
This program has been four years in the making.
The idea for a way to provide fresh, great-tasting milk came from Buss’ time on the board for Midwest Dairy.
“It’s always been our goal to get quality food in front of kids,” Buss said. “But milk was always an ongoing issue. We know cartons alter the taste of milk.”
Buss reached out to Mueller and expressed his desire to provide the schools with an alternative way of consuming milk. Mueller then connected with her colleagues in the Waconia School District, who run a prominent farm-to-school program, to learn more about the same concept they implemented in their schools.
In 2019, Mueller and the food service staff were working toward implementing the milk dispensers to offer local milk.
“It seemed like we could make it go,” she said. “Then, we were in the pandemic for 1.5 years.”
Adamant on the program’s success, the McLeod County American Dairy Association generated the funds to provide an additional milk dispenser machine. Soon after, other community organizations and businesses showed their support as well.
“We wanted to go all the way,” Buss said. “This was something we needed to get behind. There was not one person on the board that objected. This is promoting our product, and the kids are getting a nutritious, tasteful drink at lunch.”
“It was scary at first, with COVID-19 and staffing, we just didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But when we talk about wanting a farm-to-school program and implementing that, this is how we get kids better quality products.”
The schools work with Stony Creek Dairy, of Melrose, to provide 1% and chocolate milk options for the milk-dispensing machines.
“We couldn’t be more excited as this showcases our passion,” said Nathan Terres, representative for the on-farm creamery. “This is about youth consuming milk and believing in what we’re doing.”
Each dispenser has space for three bags of milk; an estimated 240 servings.
In Hutchinson, the high school typically received 425 cartons of chocolate milk and 135 cartons of 1% milk to fulfill their lunch orders. Now, their cooler is filled with enough milk bags to last a week. However, the school will continue to use cartons during breakfast due to the few students using that service and the potential of greater milk waste.
With some schools replacing milk with juice or water beverages in light of the national carton shortage, Buss is pleased this program is underway in his area.
“I’m just so glad this got going when it did,” he said. “The school doesn’t have to worry about milk cartons, and kids can drink as much or as little as they want.”
“That’s where the waste piece comes in,” she said. “We really want students to only take from the dispensers what they will drink. In other schools, I’ve seen those waste containers be almost non-existent because students take what they are going to drink and nothing more.”
Throughout the first week of the program launching in all three districts, volunteers from the communities were present – including dairy farmers – to assist students with using the dispensers.
The kitchen staff, too, quickly adapted to the change in the lunchrooms.
“My staff is super great,” said Lois Beilke, production manager at Hutchinson High School. “They are phenomenal and the reason everything is working as it should.”
The milk dispenser machines add to the districts’ missions of providing students with locally-sourced food. Many meals are developed with the incorporation of fruits, vegetables and even beef that was raised by nearby farmers.
Elementary schools within the districts will implement the milk dispenser machines into their lunchrooms in the coming months.
“The kids can’t stop talking about how this milk tastes so good and so much better than what they’re used to,” Buss said. “Hearing that makes this all worthwhile.”