ALBANY, N.Y. — Respondents to a New York State Dairy Survey say expanding school milk offerings with more flavors and fat content choices would be the number one way to boost sales and help farmers who are struggling to survive with a fourth straight year of low milk prices.

Many producers are operating below the cost of production.

But an effective school program would require improved marketing, educating young people about milk’s nutritional benefits, and overcoming processing and distribution hurdles that keep dairy products from reaching many school cafeterias.

A cross-section of farmers, industry and state officials discussed such issues during a meeting of the Milk Marketing Advisory Council on March 18 at the state agriculture department headquarters in Albany. The panel was chaired by Andrew Novakovic, Cornell University’s E.V. Baker professor of agricultural economics.

“Dairy farmers are concerned about school milk because they want to make sure future consumers have a good experience with it,” said Richard C. Naczi, American Dairy Association North East chief executive officer. “Milk sales are doing well in schools because you’re having more meals served in schools. About 7.5 percent of milk sold in the U.S. goes into the school market.”

“Our concern is simply to keep up with the times,” he said. “The half-pint milk carton in schools is the same container that’s been there for a long, long time. So we’re trying to find ways to continue to make milk interesting in a world where kids are given lots of choices for the beverages they consume.”

A change from small paper cartons to plastic bottles boosted sales 18 percent in a test study conducted in about 12 markets around the country, several years ago.

“Kids liked that package better,” Naczi said. “It was more modern like other packages. That half-pint paper container is not what they like to drink milk out of.”

However, firms that adopted plastic containers, which are more expensive, couldn’t continue them because of low dairy industry margins.

Naczi also shared highlights of a “Nourish to Flourish” program designed to increase school milk consumption. This initiative is a collaboration between the Urban School Alliance and Dairy Management Inc.

He outlined four main strategies. They are:

• Incorporating technology with a GTIN bar code to provide more data about school milk use. Such information shows what students are consuming and in what amounts.

• Developing training curriculum for school food service managers and employees, with a goal of improving the overall school cafeteria experience. It’s hoped that the more kids like to eat in school, the more milk they’ll drink.

• A more efficient and joint school food procurement process.

• Creating an “Ultimate Milk Bar” that gives kids a greater variety of milk products to choose from. For example, Coca-Cola has new Fairlife milk drink that’s high in protein and calcium, but low in sugar.

“The good news is, we know if we can give consumers what they want, they’ll drink more milk,” Naczi said. “The trouble is, milk is a fairly low margin product. So getting new and more products on the shelf is a little more difficult than some of these other beverages,” such as high energy drinks.

Council members discussed other challenges involved with trying to increase school milk sales.

“We have an abundance of milk, but I get calls from some school districts that are having a hard time buying New York state milk because of the location of processing facilities and the cost of getting it there,” said Richard Ball, state agriculture commissioner. “Here we have one of the biggest dairy states in the country. We just can’t accept that situation. We can look at hauling, processing capacity and just letting people know who’s got what and what the prices are.”

Tonya Van Slyke, Northeast Dairy Producers Association executive director, said, “We also need to do a better job educating our high school students about the nutritional importance of dairy products and milk, and how important they can be to the diet. We do an excellent job with elementary students by taking them out on farm visits and letting them ask questions of farmers.”

“But then when they get to the junior high and high school level we aren’t doing a lot of education about the nutritious dairy products that are available to young, growing people,” she said.

Novakovic suggested inviting state Education Department officials to a future meeting to discuss the possibility of making such information part of school curricula.

But he also pointed out that many young people are concerned about the dairy industry’s environmental impacts. To some people, a cup of yogurt represents a good source of calcium. To others, it means harmful methane, a greenhouse gas emitted from cow manure.

“How do we address that if it’s something that prevents someone from grabbing that dairy product?” he said.

“We need to get out in front of that,” Van Slyke said. “We need to talk about the good things we do.”

Paul Post is a freelance writer in eastern New York. He can be reached at paulpost@nycap.rr.com.