Milk flows fresh

Albany adds dispensers to secondary school


ALBANY, Minn. — A crowd of around 30 gathered May 6 in the cafeteria at Albany Area Secondary School in Albany to celebrate the instillation of two milk dispensers. 

Present were school personnel, FFA alumni, members of the dairy industry, dairy princesses and others. Guests were invited to try a glass of cold milk with cookies and to enjoy the day’s school lunchtime meal.

The milk dispensers have been operational for about three weeks, and school staff reported positive feedback from students.

“All I hear from students, and I can echo this myself, is that it is fresher milk, it tastes better, it’s cleaner when you’re drinking from a glass instead of from cardboard, and it feels more natural,” said Superintendent Travis Okerlund. “There are more than a few kids who go for a second helping.”

Joe Gill, farm director for the KASM radio network and president of the Albany FFA Alumni Association, served as emcee for the gathering.

“It’s exciting to see an idea come full circle,” Gill said. “It’s been a project with the school, the Albany FFA alumni, the folks at Stony Creek Dairy and the food service here at the school to make it all happen.”

Gill also credited Midwest Dairy for its grant funds.

“Midwest Dairy planted the seed, FFA alumni came in with additional funds, and then the school provided some funds to get to our grand total to make it happen,” Gill said.

Kate McAndrews, board vice president for the Minnesota division of Midwest Dairy, was on hand for the celebration. She said a growing number of schools are accessing Midwest Dairy’s grant program to purchase dispensers.

“It’s been a few years now, and it’s continuing to build momentum,” she said.

Also attending the event was Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, who said he has visited other schools that have added dispensers and has always heard good feedback.

“This has been something that just makes sense,” Petersen said. “I really want to congratulate all those who helped work on this. … It’s a win-win for everyone: the kids, the community and the dairy farmers.”

Stearns County dairy princesses Grace Woitalla and Avery Rieland were among those trying the milk.

“Having the milk dispensers is a great way for kids to get extra dairy in their diet, to encourage them to drink more milk, because it is so nutrient rich and helps them have energy for the school day and for activities after school,” Woitalla said.

Sandy Gruber, director of food service for Albany Area Schools, gave credit to her staff for working through the transition.

“As time goes by, they are getting used to the change,” Gruber said. “Overall, it’s a great process. Everybody is working together well, and it’s going to be a great program.”

Gruber was new to her position this year, so the district waited until later in the year to implement the dispenser program. This gave Gruber, staff and Okerlund time to visit Upsala Schools to see how dispensers are working there and to ask questions.

“After visiting Upsala, we really thought it was a good idea and said, ‘Let’s go for it,’” Gruber said.

The district prepared students ahead of time by explaining how the change would work and sent informational emails to parents in the district.

At the celebration event, Gruber talked about a few of the tweaks they made in the first few weeks. One involved the location of the dispensers. At first, they were in the kitchen where food is served as students come through with trays.

“We have a very small kitchen, so it just didn’t work out,” Gruber said.

Staff moved the dispensers to the cafeteria, close to the kitchen but where there is plenty of room.

“It seems like everything is working well now,” Gruber said.

Another challenge was getting students acclimated to placing their used glasses in the right place. The district purchased more glasses because, in the beginning, students threw some away due to the habit of tossing milk cartons. After working with students, the problem was alleviated.

Food service coordinator Alyssa Wachsman came up with a solution for how to make sure milk bags did not all run low simultaneously. She made a “do not use” sign for each dispenser so they can now place a sign on a spigot with a full bag to reserve it until the other bags are empty. That way, they can monitor flow, making sure they always have a full bag ready to go while they replace other bags, and they do not waste milk.

When it became clear that students preferred chocolate to white milk, an adjustment was needed there as well.

“We have found that we go through a lot more chocolate (milk) here than white,” Gruber said. “One dispenser now has all chocolate (for its three spigots), and the other has one white and two chocolate.”

Milk is delivered twice each week, provided by Stony Creek Dairy of Melrose. The milk is in 5-pound bags. Albany Secondary School goes through about 1.5 bags of white milk and 11 bags of chocolate milk each day. School personnel estimated that roughly 700-800 of the school’s 1,000 secondary students go through the lunch line each day.

At the celebration, Grant Schoenberg and Nate Terres, of Stony Creek Dairy, shared thoughts with the crowd. 

“We always have a saying: ‘What can we do to get one more glass of milk into somebody’s hand?’” Schoenberg said. “Something like this, with the milk being cold, with it not being in the carton with some of the glue and wax, will help get our milk drinkers back.”

Terres agreed. He gave credit to the Hutchinson, Litchfield, Dassel-Cokato and Waconia school districts for embracing the idea of milk dispensers early on and reaching out to Stony Creek Dairy.

“The whole bulk milk program came to us in 2019,” Terres said. “(Those schools were) the first that came to us and said we want to do something that is more farm-to-student, farm-to-table.”

Schoenberg thanked those who contributed to the project.

“Without everyone in this room, this project could not have happened,” Schoenberg said. “We need to get kids drinking milk again.”

Albany Area Secondary School is seeing other benefits with its dispenser program. Okerlund said it will be easier to evaluate financial benefits in about a year, but indications are already positive. For instance, in the past, many partially full or unopened cartons of milk ended up in the trash bin, he said, not only wasting milk but also making for more and heavier bags of trash.

“Right now, we’re still figuring out how it’s all going to balance out, … but we expect we’ll end up wasting less milk, and we’ll probably end up financially in a slightly better spot because kids will take only what they want, and in the end, kids will drink more milk,” Okerlund said. “We have less waste, less cost and more milk goes into kids instead of the trash.”

Gruber agreed.

“We have 5-gallon buckets where the kids can throw away any milk that’s left in their cups, and it’s very, very little milk that is thrown away,” Gruber said. “I’ve looked around as I walk through here at times, and there are some who take half a glass, some who take a full glass, some who come back for doubles. That’s the nice thing; they can take what they want, so we’re not wasting so much milk.”










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