For many kids in America, the school meal programs such as the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program are the only chance to get nutritionally balanced meals. School meals help nourish and educate children and shape life-long healthy habits.

From the beginning, milk has been part of the school meal, which is a huge opportunity to improve child health and dairy consumption, if optimized. However, factors such as removal of flavored milk, limits to low-fat or fat-free milk options and packaging, among others, likely have contributed to the slow erosion in milk consumption among children – and thus, among adults.

With the addition of the After School Supper and Summer Feeding Programs, the opportunities for milk, cheese and yogurt have grown.

Providing children with favorable milk experiences through these programs may help ensure they drink more milk in the short and long term. Innovating options to match kids’ taste and lifestyle preferences could lead to lifelong milk drinkers and it also provides potential for brand loyalty.

Milk makes the grade

Milk is critical to children’s diets. It is the No. 1 source of nine essential nutrients — including calcium, vitamin D and potassium — three of the four nutrients identified by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans as under-consumed. Milk also is the leading source of protein for children. A study assessed flavored milk reduction or removal on nutrient intakes of elementary school children and found it would require three to four additional foods to replace the nutrients lost from lower milk consumption. The replacement foods had more calories and fat, and increased costs up to $4,600 more per 100 students per year in the school district examined.

In addition to meeting nutrient needs, the DGAs state that the consumption of milk and milk products is associated with multiple health benefits, including better bone health, especially in children and adolescents as well as reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The DGAs recommend three daily servings of milk and milk products for children and adolescents nine years and older. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends four servings for adolescents.

How big is the opportunity?

Because of its nutritional value, milk is required to be offered at school lunch, breakfast, supper and summer meals. Additionally, yogurt and cheese can be offered as a meat alternative. About 30.7 million students eat school lunch, 13.2 million eat school breakfast and 2.4 million students receive a meal when school is out through the Summer Meals Program.

If breakfast participation were to equal lunch participation, that would result in 2.718 billion additional meals every year. Likewise, the School Supper Program is a growing program. If supper participation were to equal the current breakfast participation, that would result in 2.031 billion additional meals every year.

There are three key areas for progress.

1. Close the gap between lunch and breakfast eaters. There is true potential for school breakfast (summer and supper, too, for that matter) to be on par with lunch participation. NDC and local dairy councils have promoted the School Breakfast Program through Fuel Up to Play 60, a school-based nutrition and physical activity program in more than 73,000 schools. Providing breakfast to students as part of the school day through options such as breakfast in the classroom and grab-and-go has resulted in the largest participation increases.

2. Ensure the milk offered is preferred by the customer. Work by NDC has shown that if milk can be made more appealing to kids, average daily participation in the lunch and breakfast programs will often increase. NDC surveyed school nutrition directors and they believe that their students like school milk. The single factor mentioned to help increase milk sales was the availability of chocolate or other flavors. Also mentioned were plastic bottles, breakfast in the classroom, appropriate refrigeration and promotional materials.

Flavored milk contributes only about 4% of added sugars to children’s diets. The work of the dairy community to innovate a fat-free flavored milk that is 38% lower in added sugars (compared to about six years ago) has helped it stay in schools.

3. Optimize yogurt and cheese options. Providing yogurt and cheese alone or as part of other meal solutions (e.g., smoothies, muffins, casseroles, etc.) can help enhance recipes and make school meals more enticing, while also adding more dairy at each meal. The Breakfast Lab initiative to bring innovative, kid-tested/kid-approved breakfast recipes that were made with cheese or yogurt led by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and NDC helped prove this concept.

 Seizing the opportunities and overcoming the challenges is in the interest of the dairy community and communities everywhere to ensure healthy children.