10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
The new, federally mandated look of school lunches has met with resistance from students, but most of the protest has focused on the center of the plate, on the main and side dishes.
Milk, in particular flavored milk, has remained off the targeted hit list as students take to social media, YouTube and other venues to express their displeasure.
According to the Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP), milk processors met their obligation to offer flavored milk products lower in calories and sugar for the 2012-13 school year.
The new formulation has reduced calories by 21 percent, and sugars have been cut by 40 percent. Today’s flavored milk averages 132 calories per serving.
Earl Fink, executive director of the Pennsylvania Milk Dealers Association, said the feedback he’s had from processors is good, showing no noticeable pushback on school milk demand. He said it appears those students who have switched to brown bag lunches are still purchasing milk.
When the USDA decided to reform school lunches, it asked dairy processors to offer nonfat flavored milk options, something that was not an industry standard.
Processors had to invest in product development to meet the new caloric and fat requirements while still providing a good-tasting product.
Amber DuMont Sheridan, a spokeswoman for the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative, which processes milk under the Marva Maid label, said the co-op’s plants began reworking their formula in June and were ready at the beginning of the school year.
The hardest part, she said, was finding a formula that tasted good.
Two of the cooperative’s plants supply milk for the school lunch program. Looking at the current mix of orders, those for skim and chocolate milk have increased compared with last year. Strawberry orders have declined, and the cooperative decided not to offer vanilla in the reformulation because of low demand.
“Once schools settle into a routine, typically just after Labor Day, school milk sales tend to level off and stay steady,” Sheridan said. “The only time we see any dips in consumption are the week leading up to a major holiday or weeklong break.”
Janette Carpentier, Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association’s executive vice president of dairy optimization and marketing, said, “We have been blessed that we have good food service directors and processors that have been working ahead.”
She said they had been working hard because “we don’t want kids to boo-hoo chocolate milk.”
Laura England, executive vice president of communications for Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, said it’s the farmers who have been worried the most about the transition.
“When these changes were coming about. dairy farmers who talked with us were concerned that we offered a good-tasting chocolate because we want kids to have a good-tasting product,” she said. “We want kids to have a good experience with milk and dairy in school so they become our lifetime consumers.”
However, Carpentier and England say there is more than milk in the dairy mix, there are also cheese and yogurt.
Many students have become upset at the loss of such lunchtime favorites as pizza, and they dislike some of the new recipes for other foods.
Carpentier, a former school dietitian and food service director, said the catch is making food taste good. She said Domino’s has adapted its school lunch recipe to meet the new guidelines, complete with a whole-grain crust.
That is the key, she said, finding a “way to make food palatable and adaptable.”
Yogurt has also been adapted by changing recipes to take out dyes and high-fructose corn syrup.
Both school lunch and breakfast programs have guidelines that must be met. Yet schools can encourage a healthy eating culture through programs such as the Fuel Up to Play 60.
Schools that participate in the program create teams of students and teachers to figure out how to make the schools healthier and help students get 60 minutes of play in a day. More than 4,500 schools participate in the program in the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association’s territory.
Carpentier said student buy-in can make a big difference. When kids have the opportunity to choose instead of having their food “plopped” onto plates, there is more acceptance.