Intake Inroads

by Pamela Accetta Smith
Senior Editor

The industry continues to stress milk consumption in schools and devise fun ways to get kids on the bandwagon.

Processors and dairy promotion organizations alike preach that milk and other dairy products can and should be an important part of the school experience.
The need for encouragement is clear and, as many industry studies have demonstrated, simple practices and strategies can help promote milk consumption in children and can be pursued by schools with confidence that they are consistent with good overall health. But despite its position as a healthful beverage, milk continues to hit stumbling blocks as schools across the country reassess their nutritional standards. Nevertheless, the industry is making inroads, supported by federal nutritional guidelines, scientific research and clever marketing campaigns.
When industry players and processors are posed with the question — “How has milk’s position changed in schools over the past year?”— a variety of answers is given, but not without at least one common thread: the fluctuation in nutritional standards has giving rise to the topic of dairy options available to students.
“Milk’s overall position in schools has not changed as much as the type of choices that are available to students,” says Peggy Biltz, chief executive officer of the Dairy Council of California. “Federally mandated policies and recent guidelines such as the Institutes of Medicine’s Nutrition Standards for Food in Schools (IOM) and California laws have preserved milk’s prominent place in the schools. In fact, IOM declared milk one of three allowable beverages on school campuses. Where we are seeing change is in the types of beverages allowed on campus. California’s Senate Bill (SB) 965 stipulates 2%, 1% and nonfat milk products as permissible in schools. Regulations of this bill are being drafted that set sugar limits on milk and doesn’t allow alternative sweeteners.”
Rising obesity rates among children and adolescents have prompted public health and government regulators as well as school administrators to take a critical look at all foods provided in schools, says Camellia Patey, vice president of school marketing for Rosemont, Ill.-based Dairy Management Inc. (DMI). “While the initial targets were sodas and other foods of minimal nutritional value sold in school vending machines; all foods and beverages sold in schools — including flavored milks — are being reviewed for reductions in fat, sugar, sodium and calorie levels,” she says.
Penny Baker, director of marketing for Smith Dairy Co., Orrville, Ohio, says the company now offers schools more choices in packaging, flavors and varieties of milk. “We have upgraded our school milk program to include Limited Edition flavors that are available on a rotational basis,” she says. “Limited Edition flavors include Smith’s Low-Fat Vanilla, Orange Cream and, coming this fall, Cookies & Cream.”
But the most drastic change Smith Dairy has seen this year was in school milk packaging — specifically, the introduction of the 8-ounce plastic bottle, Baker says. “While paper is still an option, many schools we serve prefer plastic,” she says. “Nutrition has also been top of mind with the charge to reduce the calorie and sugar content in flavored milks.”
Victor Zaborsky, director of marketing for Washington, D.C.-based International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), says the past year has really been a mixed bag. “We have seen growth in school milk sales and foodservice personnel continue to be very supportive of milk consumption,” he says. “We have also seen many of milk’s competitors lose footing in schools. However, the pressure is on for flavored milk, which accounts for 70 percent of school milk sales. While flavor offerings are growing in schools and chocolate has been improved by many companies, the momentum could be cut short by growing discussion about added sugars and calorie levels.”
One example of local limitations on milk choices is in New York City, Zaborsky notes. In November 2005, the New York City Department of Education decided to limit milk choices in some public schools to 1% or fat-free white milk. “While the city’s campaign is well intentioned, studies show that offering flavored milk as an alternative to soft drinks can significantly increase milk consumption and calcium intake among children and adolescents,” Zaborsky says. “Despite opposition from parents and health experts, this ban on flavored and other milks remains in place. Many other states and local school districts are considering similar caloric and other restrictions that would impact the availability and consumption of milk in schools.”
Think About Your Drink
Dairy Council of California works closely with health and education leaders in charge of developing school wellness policies in the state, and Biltz says the feedback from these key stakeholders, as well as foodservice directors, is that they want to keep a variety of choices of milk available for kids. “They see milk as an important nutritional beverage and, as a result, access to milk in California has not been compromised. Concern regarding added sugars in flavored milks will likely, continue, however,” she says. “SB 965 does allow for alternative dairy beverages to be offered in the place of milk such as soy milk, rice milk and other similar nondairy beverages. At this point, we have no indication that they will be popular choices for children.”
It is important to mention, Biltz says, that California milk standards are higher than the rest of the nation, and so it faces different challenges when it comes to securing milk’s place in the schools. One of the Dairy Council of California’s roles is to educate policy makers about California’s nutrient package to help ensure policies are developed that California’s unique product can comply. “To date, we have been successful in our efforts but we will need to remain diligent about reaching out to policy makers on the industry’s behalf,” she says. “The California industry is constantly considering ways to improve the milk program.”
DMI’s Patey says that, with new state and local regulations, the dairy industry is being encouraged to reformulate flavored milks with lower levels of sugar and calories that meet the changing guidelines of schools and parents, but still deliver the great taste that kids expect. “Child health is a dairy industry priority and we’re committed to continuing to develop healthy and great-tasting dairy foods that meet the needs of consumers’ changing lifestyles at school, at home and on-the-go,” she says. “School officials and foodservice personnel are very supportive and recognize the important role that milk plays in a child’s diet. In addition, our local dairy representatives are providing materials to help schools respond to the changing school nutrition environment.”
More than 7,300 schools across the country — serving more than 4.5 million students — have adopted milk in plastic, re-sealable containers in a variety of flavors as part of a DMI-supported program known as the “New Look of School Milk.”
Fluid Promos
Response from school officials and foodservice personnel regarding the dairy industry’s efforts to improve its milk programs has been very supportive, Zaborsky says. “Overall, these are strong milk advocates,” he says. “Foodservice workers are very supportive and have demonstrated a willingness to execute appropriate programs like participation in poster programs, Body by Milk and sampling events in schools. Sampling events in schools doubled in the 2006 school year compared to the previous year.” The combination of programming, education and providing materials is having a positive effect on foodservice action and milk consumption. “The city of St. Louis is a best-practice example of continuous improvement yielding continuous growth year after year,” Zaborsky says. “The introduction of basic marketing and sales principles into the St Louis school milk business has had a lasting and significant impact on student milk consumption. St. Louis schools continue to refresh school milk programs each semester. Improvements made to help continue the growth of sales include offering new flavors, updated carton graphics, promotions (local and national), sales time and customer service support and expansion of breakfast service.”
In 2005, Prairie Farms Dairy Inc., Carlinville, Ill., addressed the needs of children by improving its milk formulations, adding flavors, updating its paperboard packaging  and introducing in-school marketing in a MilkPEP-backed program known as the St. Louis Improved School Milk Test. “Weekly servings per student grew 12 percent during the test and an additional 5 percent in year two throughout the metropolitan market,” says Rebecca Leinenbach, sales program director for Prairie Farms. “Weekly milk servings per student averaged 2.86 in the fall of 2004 pre-test period. During fall 2006, weekly milk servings per student were 4.6, an astonishing 61 percent increase — a level of success no one quite anticipated. In the fall of 2005, we expanded our school marketing program throughout our network to thousands of additional schools and achieved results similar to those of the St. Louis Test.”
Prairie Farms, which serves markets throughout the Midwest, continues to build upon the success of the 2005 test. “Our guiding principle is to remain ‘kid-focused,’” Leinenbach says. “Students are becoming increasingly aware of milk’s unique nutrient-rich package compared to other nutrient-void beverages. We want milk to be their beverage of choice, and students’ taste and flavor preferences will be our guide for future product introductions.”
The company’s fall 2007 half-pint flavor lineup will include 1% milk in chocolate, strawberry and vanilla, plus the launching of a 1% cookies and cream, which Leinenbach says ranked favorably among students of all ages in concept testing.
Prairie Farms has taken steps beyond improving milk offerings by engaging in a wide variety of marketing efforts during the 2006-07 school year. “For example, our ‘Holy Cow! Milk tastes great!’ Carton Design Contest, a collaboration with Blue Ridge Paper and Build-A-Bear Workshop®, gave students in the greater St. Louis metro area the opportunity to draw a picture showing their favorite way to drink chocolate milk. Over 2,000 entries were received,” Leinenbach says, explaining that 12 first-place and two grand-prize winning designs were chosen. Prize packages were awarded and the two grand-prize winners had their designs featured on carton side-panels for one month.
“Milk Rocks!”, a multi-tiered promotion developed by Blue Ridge Products Inc. to promote increased milk consumption and nutrition awareness among teens and ’tweens, was also launched. Prairie Farms sponsored concerts featuring rising pop star Britney Christian in more than 20 schools, reaching thousands of students in the Indianapolis metro area and St. Louis Metro area.
“School administration personnel were pleased with the excitement generated by ‘Milk Rocks’ and many have requested an encore for the 2007-08 school year,” Leinenbach says.
In addition, Prairie Farms’ Missouri-based joint venture affiliate Hiland Dairy developed Hiland “Halftime” to raise awareness among principals and athletic directors about the importance of dairy in student’s diet. Along with introducing new, contemporary designs for paperboard cartons, Hiland hosted events at several high schools during basketball game halftimes. Activities included Hiland Hoops, Hiland Use Your Heads, Hiland Crosscourt Bowling and Hiland Find-a-jug. The events were supported by a variety of promotional materials. The “Halftime” marketing campaign won the 2007 IDFA Achieving Excellence Award for Best Combination School Marketing Piece.
Since the beginning of the year, Prairie Farms has been exhibiting at state-division School Nutrition Association annual conferences throughout the Midwest, Leinenbach says. “At each show, we solicited ideas from school foodservice directors and personnel for the ‘Next Big School Promotion,’ she says. “Participants were asked to submit an entry form with their ideas and in turn receive coupons for free ice cream with one grand prize winner from each conference. To date, our exhibit was awarded first place by the Indiana SNA and second place by the Missouri SNA. Our interaction with SNA members and colorfulness of the exhibit appealed to the conference judges.”
And just in time for the 2007-08 school year, Prairie Farms is looking forward to the introduction of its new pfkids.com Web site. “Market-Place, our Web developer, designed the site to promote a healthy lifestyle in a fun way with kid-appeal through graphics and interactivity — all while maintaining a connection to our Prairie Farms brand,” Leinenbach explains. “It will be divided into activities and will be guided by five animated ‘carton’ characters. The Web site, www.pfkids.com, will be a highly effective tool for reaching kids, parents, teachers, school dieticians and foodservice personnel.”
Once the season has ended, cookies and cream will remain in the regular flavor lineup.
“As students move toward a healthier lifestyle, Prairie Farms is committed to offering healthy and delicious products to meet their needs,” Leinenbach says. “We are pleased with our accomplishments but continuous improvement is necessary to ensure that students, our ‘core milk drinkers.’ remain life-long Prairie Farms customers.”
The key to success, Zaborsky says, is to do it all: “Schools need to incorporate new and/or additional flavors, update packaging, improve marketing and merchandising (serving milk at the proper temperature), and hold sampling events.”