I’m writing this column in mid-April, long before the print version of this issue will be readied for mailing (one of the downsides of deadlines). And as I write, the dairy supply chain is reeling from an abundance of negative impacts associated with the coronavirus pandemic.

In many states, schools are closed and restaurants — if still open — are limited to delivery and/or carryout operations. Those closures are hurting the dairy industry enormously.

According to Dairy Management Inc., 7% of the nation’s fluid milk flows through schools (via student lunches). Meanwhile, approximately 50% of cheese produced in the United States goes to the foodservice channel, the Dairy Business Association and Edge Dairy Farmer Cooperative report. Other dairy segments such as ice cream, of course, also make products for the foodservice channel, but I don’t have reliable percentages for those sales.

Even though retail dairy sales have been on the rise — in fact, retail milk sales during the last two weeks of March surpassed “typical” numbers by 44 million gallons, according to MilkPEP — those sales have not been enough to make up for the losses elsewhere. As a result of this — and other major supply chain disruptions that include the loss of dairy export business and a shortage of truck drivers — dairy farmers across the country are being forced to dump milk, and many dairy processors have lost business.

Like other food and beverage companies, dairy processing companies also have been deemed “essential businesses,” meaning their processing facilities remain open for business as the pandemic carries on. As such, plant workers risk potential exposure to the coronavirus on a daily basis.


Positive news

But amid all the doom and gloom, there is still plenty of positive news to share. For one thing, food and beverage companies overall have stepped up health and safety efforts. In a survey conducted April 2-6 by Clear Seas Research (part of BNP Media, Dairy Foods’ parent company), 89% of food and beverage company respondents said they were promoting social distancing; 72% said they were increasing frequency of cleaning/sanitation procedures; and 76% said they were providing hand sanitizer/antibacterial soaps. And more than a third of respondents — 35% — said they were actually incorporating additional health and safety procedures into their business plans in comparison to six months ago.


In this together

The dairy processing subset of that food and beverage industry has been ramping up efforts here, too. Read about some of those initiatives in a Q&A with top-level dairy company executives on the Dairy Foods website. 

But perhaps the best news coming out of this crisis are acts showcasing the spirit of community — the acknowledgement that we’re all in this together — that’s been building across the nation.

For example, Rich Miller, a Wisconsin milk truck driver battling cancer, used $5,000 of his own money to launch a fund to deliver cheese curds to people in need — and ensure continued demand for local farmers’ milk, Minneapolis news station KARE 11 reports. His initial investment keeps expanding as individuals and companies contribute. Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery receives the milk Miller hauls, and is selling the cheese curds it makes to him at a reduced rate.

“Because of this program, and the success we’ve seen through our curbside pick-up program, we have not had to dump any milk at our creamery or the farms,” Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery says in an April 10 post on its website.

The recent efforts of a number  of other dairy companies, as well as dairy suppliers, fitting into the spirit-of-community theme are covered in the “In Brief” section of our news section, and on dairyfoods.com.

When this crisis is all over and life returns to “a new normal,” I’m hoping that at least some of this community spirit remains.