Reversing The Trend
by Julie Cook Ramirez
Milk processors continue battling to regain share of stomach at home and school.
In the black-and-white world of “Leave it to Beaver,” milk was a given at the dinner table. Fast-forward to the 1970s and “The Brady Bunch” — even though the times, they were a-changin’, Greg, Marcia, Peter, Jan, Bobby and Cindy nearly always opted for a glass of milk.
But as the ’80s and ’90s approached, things began to change. Not only were families drinking far less milk at home, but lucrative contracts between school districts and juice and soda companies significantly cut into the amount they consumed there as well. School milk sales plummeted — from 3 billion half-pints in 1970 to 1.8 billion in 1980, then 181 million in 1990 and 103 million in 2004.
Not about to admit defeat, several major industry groups — including Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) and the National Dairy Council (NDC), both in Rosemont, Ill.; and the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), Washington, D.C. — leapt into action.
“Without a doubt, building life-long dairy consumption starts with kids,” says Tom Gallagher, DMI’s chief executive officer. “We have a captive, impressionable audience, and we must provide milk the way they want it.”
Head of the Class
It seems their efforts are finally paying off. Last summer, the Washington, D.C.-based Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) announced that its St. Louis School Milk Test had resulted in an overall average increase in milk sales of more than 12 percent per school. The test, which involved 165,000 students at nearly 300 schools, experimented with multi-colored paperboard packaging, improved flavor formulations and new flavors of milk provided by Prairie Farms to determine which proved most popular with children. MilkPEP says those results, if applied nationally, would translate into more than 600 million additional unit sales annually.  
“The St. Louis test demonstrated the importance of in-school promotion and in-school activities related to milk,” says Tom Nagle, vice president of marketing for IDFA. “We’re trying to figure out what optimum merchandising looks like in a school, so that we can get as close to that as possible.”
The producer-funded New Look of School Milk program has also proven quite successful, more than doubling the number of schools offering milk in plastic, resealable bottles with more than 3,700 schools participating during the 2005-06 school year, compared to 1,500 during the 2004-05 school year. “The paradigm of school milk is really changing, and that’s a great thing for the future, but it’s a slow build,” Nagle says. “You are looking at changing a long-term behavior of kids, which translates into increased consumption over time, but it does take time.”
Armed with studies showing more kids will choose milk at school if it comes in reclosable plastic bottles, DMI has been encouraging processors to switch to plastic, as well as broaden their flavor offerings. Among those rising to the challenge is Borden Dairy in Conroe, Texas, which has been aggressively working to win back students’ hearts, minds and stomachs.
While participation by grade schoolers has remained fairly steady, middle and high school students were another story, says Ray Platter, Borden Dairy’s executive vice president. “It just didn’t seem like the cool thing to do to pick up milk with your school lunch,” he explains.

TOP 10 WHOLE MILK BRANDS*
  $ Sales (In Millions) % Change vs. Year Ago Unit Sales (In Millions) % Change vs. Year Ago
Total Category$3,124.2-5.7%1,193.3-5.7%
Private Label1,985.6-7.3760.9-6.5
Borden Milk Products LP49.63.217.42.5
Horizon Organic43.621.111.414.5
Lactaid 10031.42.98.80.7
Garelick Farms31.0-5.013.8-6.1
Tuscan Farms30.7-3.412.6-3.7
Pet30.03.211.01.8
Prairie Farms28.4-6.011.8-4.1
Mayfield27.1-0.48.0-4.7
Dean’s25.4-5.611.3-7.5
* Total sales in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandise outlets, excluding Wal-Mart, for the 52-week period ending January 22, 2006. SOURCE: Information Resources Inc.
Discussions with school foodservice officials led Borden to devise more attractive packaging, larger bottles and more innovative flavors, including Dulce de Leche, Orange Dream Delight and Choco-Mint. “The children in the middle schools and high schools seem to be more attracted to milk if you put it in a larger bottle,” Platter says of the current 11-ounce container.
For its efforts, Borden won the first-ever Leadership in School Nutrition (LISN) Award, sponsored by the NDC to acknowledges positive partnerships between processors and schools through innovations in milk programming using plastic packaging. (Visit www.lisn-awards.com for more information — Ed.)
Healthy Halo
While the future of school milk sales looks promising, milk sales in traditional outlets continue to decline. Overall, sales of fluid milk in supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, fell 2.2 percent in dollars and 2.7 percent in units during the 52-week period ending January 22, 2006, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI). A closer look reveals that whole milk suffered the greatest losses, with both dollar and unit sales plummeting 5.7 percent. Skim/lowfat milk sales dropped 1.0 percent in dollars and 1.3 percent in units, while flavored milk sales fell 0.8 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively.
These figures come as no surprise to Matt Samson, marketing director at Garelick Farms, Franklin, Mass., who says consumers are conflicted when it comes to milk. Bolstered by good news linking dairy and weight loss, they are motivated to drink more milk. While they like the creamy taste of whole and 2% milk, health-conscious consumers are concerned about the fat content but find that skim milk just doesn’t cut it when it comes to taste and mouth feel.
Responding to such consumer feedback, Garelick introduced Over the Moon milk, which claims to deliver the rich, creamy taste of milk but with less fat. Over the Moon is available in a 1% variety that is said to taste like whole milk and a fat-free variety that supposedly tastes like 2%. Samson says developing such a product didn’t pose much of an R&D challenge, as it merely entailed adding back more calcium and protein, two nutrients consumers are seeking more of anyway.
“People consider milk to be one of nature’s perfect products and don’t want to feel like we’re altering that,” he says. “Since calcium and protein are naturally present in milk, they are comfortable with us using these nutrients to fortify Over the Moon, and they appreciate that this natural fortification delivers the product’s ultimate benefit of better taste.”
Meanwhile, organic milk is growing by leaps and bounds. Dean’s Horizon Organic leads the pack, reporting growth of more than 21 percent for its whole, skim and lowfat offerings for the year ending January 22, according to IRI. Other processors are jumping on the bandwagon, with both brands and private labels adding organic line extensions.
While many processors tend to view organic milk as a competitor, Nagle says it’s not a matter of organic milk cannibalizing traditional milk sales, but of one segment of the category boosting overall consumption.
“It’s hard to think about organic milk cannibalizing regular milk because organic milk is regular milk with some specific added-value benefits to the consumer,” he says. “People often view it as a separate part of the business, but if you look at it from our perspective, which is, ‘what are total national sales and consumption of fluid milk,’ it’s part of the mix — it’s just a value-added segment with a strong brand orientation. That’s different than the rest of the core volume, which is more commodity-driven and less branded.”
Julie Cook Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.