Stakeholders from across the dairy value chain discussed priorities, best practices, challenges, work and considered opportunities that align U.S. dairy and collectively puts the industry on a path to providing sustainable solutions for people and planet during the recent 2023 Dairy Sustainability Alliance Spring Meeting.

Barbara O’Brien, who serves as president and CEO of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), opened the meeting by saying the Alliance – a multi-stakeholder group involving more than 180 companies and organizations who want to contribute to dairy’s social responsibility journey – is more important than ever amid escalating challenges related to the environment, inflation and increasing supply chain protocols, standards and reporting requirements.

“The stakes are high, and the challenges, competition and counter narrative only get more intense,” O’Brien said. “I hear and am inspired by the people, commitment and hard work taking place across the industry.”

O’Brien said the Alliance, in its 15th year, follows principles that contribute to the long-term viability of the U.S. dairy industry, such as knowledge sharing and use of science-based research and tools. The Alliance works to identify solutions that reflect the diversity of farmers, products and the industry overall.

O’Brien told the 240 meeting attendees – including 19 dairy farmer representatives – they are “doing the doing and helping to raise all boats.” She cited the many farmer-led conservation groups that have received climate smart agriculture grants and the 36 companies representing 75 percent of milk production that have adopted the U.S. Dairy Stewardship Commitment, all of which signal voluntary action that advances sustainability leadership and transparent reporting of progress.

“While challenges continue, I hope you’re as confident as I am in the future for U.S. dairy and that’s in large part to the people in this room and your peers across the country,” she said. “Because, ultimately, people and relationships are at the very heart of what we do as we bring great minds together to advance dairy as a category – across environmental, social and economic priorities.”

Following O’Brien, a panel discussion addressed efforts to deliver dairy nutrition that meets emerging and personalized health needs for consumers, today and tomorrow. Dr. Katie Brown, executive vice president of scientific and nutrition affairs for National Dairy Council, said assuring food security is vital with more than one in five U.S. adults – 34 million people including 9 million children – facing food insecurity.

Brown said the industry’s partnership with Feeding America, which has a network of 200 food banks, is increasing access to dairy. In 2016, 226 million pounds of dairy moved through Feeding America’s network, but it grew to 664 million pounds in 2021 during the pandemic when food insecurity rates soared. Last year, 506 million pounds were distributed.

“Feeding America knows dairy is a nutritional powerhouse and is important to their clients,” Brown said. “Milk is one of the most requested and least donated items in food banks and Feeding America has set an ambitious goal that dairy will be 10 percent of foods distributed throughout its network by 2025. This is the power of partnerships.”

Representatives of ZS – a global management consulting and technology firm – shared research results that revealed which aspects of foods have growing appeal to younger consumers, particularly as it relates to their broadening views of holistic health and wellbeing. The group examined 37 of the most managed health and wellness conditions and conducted research to determine which areas hold the greatest potential for dairy.

ZS is working with the Innovation Center’s Health and Well-Being Task Force to narrow the areas where dairy can best meet consumers’ changing expectations of food now and in the future. Examples include physical/athletic performance, bone health energy, and Alliance attendees discussed opportunities to inform the task force’s work.