Last month, I spent several days in Washington, D.C., learning about national agricultural issues and lobbying for passage of the Farm Bill. The trip, as with most travel, required relying on restaurant and convenience store food for my meals. That also meant I had to rely on restaurant- and store-bought milk for my dairy fix.
My first meal after arriving in D.C. was at the Quizno's just down the street from the hotel. I ordered a sandwich and a milk. If you love milk as much as I do, then you can probably imagine my surprise when the Quizno's employee told me they didn't have any milk to go with my sandwich.
"You don't have any milk?" I asked incredulously.
"We don't carry milk, ma'am," he drawled.
Since I don't drink soda, I always order milk with my meals at restaurants and this was the first time I had ever been told that a restaurant - fast food or otherwise - didn't carry milk.
As I munched on my sandwich, washed down with a glass of water, I pondered this Quizno's decision to not carry milk. The Quizno's restaurants here in Minnesota carry milk, at least the ones I've visited, so I figured it must be that individual franchise's decision.
The only reasonable explanation for not carrying milk is because they weren't selling enough of it. Or, possibly, they didn't want to deal with beverages with expiration dates.
Either way, in my mind, it was a sad discovery. But, looking back, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. After all, fluid milk consumption has been declining since the 1970s to a low last year of 20.04 gallons per person, according to the USDA. Milk is now the fourth most popular beverage, behind carbonated soft drinks, bottled water and beer.
So why is fluid milk consumption declining?
Some industry experts point the blame at fluctuating milk prices, saying that each time the price of milk in the store goes up, consumers purchase less milk. But when the store price of milk goes back down, consumers don't respond by purchasing more milk.
Others claim fluid milk consumption is declining because people eat more meals away from home than they do at home. Milk is more likely to be served with a meal at home than ordered with a restaurant meal.
I have my own theory about why our country is drinking less milk: A lot of unflavored restaurant- and store-bought milk tastes icky and flavored milk has been demonized by health officials, so given the choice been something unappetizing and something perceived as unhealthy, consumers choose neither.
Take McDonald's, for example. In the past couple years, the fast-food giant has added several new dairy-based items to its menu and revised other dairy offerings, including the cute, little milk chugs that come with Happy Meals. Their yogurt-based smoothies and milk-based coffee drinks taste good, but the same can't be said for the little milk chugs.
The first time we ordered white milk with Dan and Monika's Happy Meals, they wouldn't drink it. And it's not because our kids don't like milk. It's because McDonald's white milk tastes awful. I know; I had to finish the kids' milk. Glen wouldn't even drink it. How appetizing is a beverage that looks like milk but tastes like a cooked plastic bottle?
The next time we ordered Happy Meals, we ordered the chocolate milk chugs. The chocolate didn't taste a whole lot better to me, but the kids finished it.
Subway's milk is almost as unappetizing as McDonald's. It tastes a little less like a plastic bottle, but still tastes overcooked. Maybe that's because it's ultra-high temperature pasteurized and bottled in Arizona, then shipped to Minnesota to sit in a cooler for the rest of its two-month shelf life. Does milk really need a two-month shelf life? Does all of Subway's milk really need to come from Arizona?
(I've never checked to see where McDonald's milk is bottled, but if you're curious about where your milk was bottled, you can look up the plant code from the bottle or package at http://whereismymilkfrom.com.)
School milk faces similar challenges. Some schools offer milk in plastic bottles and some still offer paperboard cartons. During a conversation with non-farming friends about the issue of school milk packaging, a few years back, my dad made the point clear when he asked his friends, "Would you drink beer out of a paperboard carton?"
At least school milk is regionally sourced and doesn't have a two-month shelf life. Unfortunately, it's only offered in unflavored one-percent, unflavored skim and chocolate skim. Talk about being required to choose the lesser of the evils.
With Dan starting school this year, I was a bit worried about whether he would drink school milk, based on a conversation we had this summer.
My sister was visiting and brought along a gallon of store-bought milk. I poured Dan a glass one night before bedtime. He took a drink and asked me, "Mom, is this our milk?"
"No," I told him. "It's some of the milk Auntie brought."
"I didn't think it was ours," he said.
"How can you tell?" I asked.
"It doesn't have all the good stuff our milk has in it."
(I swear I have not tried to instill my farm-milk-is-better belief in my children; if I have, it was inadvertently.)
So, after Dan's first day of school, I asked him how lunch went and if he drank his milk.
"Yes, Mom," Dan said, "but the pink milk carton didn't have strawberry milk in it."
I can only imagine his surprise at taking a swig of skim milk after a lifetime of consuming mostly whole milk.
The next day, Dan told me he picked the chocolate milk. What do the students do at schools where flavored milk has been banned?
Fortunately, I believe the dairy industry has a few options for improving students' and consumers' milk choices. I'll detail those options in my next column.
References available upon request.