WACONIA, Minn. – Students in Waconia Public Schools have more accessibility to fresh milk in their lunchrooms, and they are taking full advantage of it.
    During the summer, the district installed seven bulk milk machines in their schools – one in each of the three elementary buildings and two machines in both the middle and high schools.
    “The feedback has been fantastic,” Barb Schank said. “Kids love the flavor. They love the independence of being able to take as much as they want, and we’re giving them a dining experience just like they get at home.”
    Schank is the nutritional service director at Café #110, the food service program within the Waconia School District in Waconia, Minn.
    She and her assistant, Tracy Braun, pursued the lunchroom investment after they received funding from the state, and Braun received funding from Midwest Dairy as a dairy farmer.
    Braun and her family milk 40 cows near Cologne, Minn.
    “Loan Oak Farms is very excited to support the milk project at Café #110 in providing fresh milk to students,” Braun said.
    Midwest Dairy awarded Braun $3,000 towards the purchase of bulk milk dispensers.
    Additionally, the district applied for another grant through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. They were awarded $4,500.
    In total, the grant covered $7,500 of the $26,000 project, which included the machines along with the glasses, racks, dollies and installation, as well.
    “District administration loved the concept and every school got on board from the beginning,” Schank said. “Before school started, an email was shared to all district staff introducing the idea. Everyone was in full support of the project. It got more buzz than what we ever expected. We were honestly shocked by all the positive feedback.”
    Café #110 is a food service program founded on a seed-to-table concept that educates students about sustainable food production and reducing waste. The goal of the program is to provide a nutritious and affordable meal that also expands children’s palates.
    Schank previously received grant funding to purchase a pasta machine for students to enjoy homemade pasta at mealtime. The district also uses locally sourced ingredients when possible.
    “We know we can’t get away from all processed foods, but we work hard to have the best options to compliment the menu,” Schank said.
    Over the years, both Schank and Braun have watched the district’s waste accumulate, particularly in milk dumped and cartons thrown in the trash. They knew providing students with fresh milk and allowing them to take what they wanted to drink was the place to start.
    “The waste was really disheartening,” Schank said. “We were encouraging kids to drink their milk, and for some that might’ve been only a sip before they tossed the carton. Especially those younger kids who just couldn’t drink a whole 8-ounce carton.”
    Braun agreed.
    “In our lunchrooms, we had kids empty their milk cartons before putting them in the trash,” she said. “The amount of milk going into buckets was staggering.”
    Now, not even a month into the new school year, Waconia schools have noticed a drastic change in milk waste and also children’s association with dairy.
    Previously, the district was wasting upwards of 90 gallons of milk every day. That number is zero with the bulk milk machines.
    “Time will tell how effective this new program is,” Schank said. “We do know we don’t have any milk waste and it feels like we’re constantly filling up the machines.”
    The lunchroom improvements in Waconia schools reflect the sentiments of American adults, according to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult in partnership with the International Dairy Foods Association.
     Survey results revealed half of adults believe it is important public schools offer low-fat flavored milk with school meals. Additionally, 53% of adults polled believe it is important 2% and whole milk are offered in schools.
    “There’s a literal hunger for dairy in schools,” said Matt Herrick, senior vice president of communications for IDFA. “Americans love milk, and dairy milk at that. It’s a great place for the dairy industry to be right now.”
    This year, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act is slated for review by national policymakers. The act is looked at every five years to ensure programs under the act meet the nutritional needs of children.
    “As fall gets underway, those in [Washington] D.C. are looking at the child nutrition law and what’s being served at schools,” Herrick said. “We want to ensure policymakers look at our survey and stay grounded in the reality of what American families prefer.”
    In Waconia, the excitement of milk options carries through in the students and community members.
    During the first week of school, Schank and Braun invited local dairy farmers and princesses to the lunchrooms to advocate for dairy as part of well-balanced diets, as well as help students become familiar with the new dispensers.
    “There’s been such a buzz about being able to refill their milk glasses,” Schank said. “Everyone absolutely loves the new bulk milk the experience.”
    Braun agreed.
    “This is important to me,” she said. “We’re positively influencing these students in a welcoming way and with a product that has good value in their diets.”