Got Milk … Cartons? Some schools in WA won’t, thanks to shortage

Half-pint cartons of milk, served in cafeterias and lunchrooms across the country, are ubiquitous on the lunch trays of millions of students. But in some districts, they will soon disappear.

A nationwide shortage of the cartons is hitting the dairy industry, according to suppliers and state officials, leaving schools brainstorming other ways to keep the drink flowing into students’ diets.

Milk is served to millions of children across the country each school day, part of meal and supplement programs subsidized by the government. But schools across multiple states are experiencing “milk supply chain challenges,” because of issues with packaging, a recent release from the U.S. Department of Agriculture warned. The department advised that schools affected by the shortages could temporarily be flexible with whether they provide milk with meals or not.

School districts in New York, Pennsylvania, California, Washington and other states said they were bracing for the supply shortages, which are expected to last into early 2024. Hospitals, prisons and other settings with cafeterias were likely to be affected as well.

The Lake Stevens School District in northwestern Washington state said Tuesday: “Sometimes we may not have milk during breakfast or lunch. We plan to prioritize milk for breakfast when available.” Among other measures, the district encouraged students to bring their own water bottles.

“We’re thinking it’s going to hit within the week,” said Vickie Scroger, the food service manager for Holley Central School District in western New York state. “We’re waiting for them to say we no longer have cartons.” She learned of the upcoming shortage last week from suppliers, she said, and the district sent letters home to inform parents.

But in 26 years, Scroger said, a shortage of milk cartons was an outlier. “I’ve never had it happen,” she said. Instead of serving cartons, they would purchase milk in larger quantities and pour it into cups.

To cope, many school districts will also buy milk in bulk and pour it for students. Others said that once the supply of cartoned milk was used, they would serve the milk in cups with lids or offer students juice or water instead. In Pennsylvania, a district in Centre County said it would provide self-serve milk stations for middle and high school students and distribute it to elementary school students.

Supplies of milk remain “strong,” according to a release from the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, a group representing dairy farmers in the region. But dairy processors were looking for solutions to store the milk in serving-size containers not only in schools but also in hospitals, nursing home and prisons.

The shortage comes as conservation groups in recent years have campaigned for milk cartons to become a figment of the past. In 2020, some schools began switching from the single-use packaging to bulk dispensers serving milk in reusable cups. Supporters of the dispensers, which would need investment to be installed in cafeterias, say they could help reduce food packaging and waste. Young people also say they are turning away from milk in favor of other plant alternatives.

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