A widespread and growing paper milk carton shortage is stirring up some issues for schools, which are required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to offer milk at every breakfast, lunch or supper service for students.
In an Oct. 25 memo to child nutrition directors, the USDA acknowledged that schools in multiple states are dealing with milk supply chain challenges specifically due to packaging issues. As a result, the USDA said state agencies may allow schools impacted by milk supply shortages to serve meals without milk or with an alternative form of milk during this emergency period.
“Although Program operators are expected to meet the fluid milk requirements to the greatest extent possible, supply chain disruptions, including disruptions that limit milk variety or affect serving size, would be considered a temporary emergency condition for purposes of this flexibility,” the USDA said. The agency did not specify what alternative forms of milk schools could offer.
The School Nutrition Association told Packaging Dive it has been sharing USDA’s guidance on the matter with school nutrition directors. SNA also advises schools to communicate with their state agencies if procurement issues persist.
California recommends schools struggling to serve enough milk consider using bulk milk dispensers. The state also suggests schools streamline their product list with less variety in milks offered. Schools should also document to the state education department any shortage of the fluid milk due to supply chain problems in order to serve an alternate form of milk or no milk at all.
In New York, schools impacted by the milk carton shortage are encouraged to pour milk from larger containers into individual cups and offer just one type of milk. Alternate forms of milk schools can provide include low-fat or fat-free lactose-free milk, according to the New York State Education Department.
If none of those options are doable, schools may forego serving milk altogether, the state education department said. Schools must notify the department only if they cannot serve any form of milk.
Adjustments at the local levels
The issue appears to be spreading beyond New York and California.
Meanwhile, milk producers like Galliker’s Dairy Company based in Pennsylvania are working with schools to find solutions and packaging alternatives, according to a statement from Julia Galliker, the company’s executive vice president. The company serves more than 1.3 million school meal containers per week and has established a School Milk Helpline to assist schools working with the milk producer.
School districts across the country are also beginning to send messages to their families and communities about how they are either currently managing or preparing to navigate serving milk without half pint cartons.
Several districts have said they expect the milk carton shortage to last into January.
For instance, in West Virginia’s Preston County Schools, school nutrition officials are exploring options beyond their usual milk supplier. “However, unfortunately, there may be instances where juice and water will need to be substituted,” said Beth Doerr, the district’s child nutrition director, in a statement.
For Walla Walla Public Schools in Washington, Pamela Milleson, the district’s nutrition services director, has prepared a multi-tiered contingency plan with other district departments should the milk carton shortage reach the 5,600-student district. The district also released an FAQ page on its website and plans to message parents via ParentSquare if the shortage impacts local school milk offerings.
Walla Walla schools typically serve 22,000 cartons of milk per week, according to Milleson.
“I’ve been doing school food service for 32 years now, and I never would have dreamed — early in my career — of ever having a milk or milk carton shortage,” Milleson said.
But a lot has changed in that time, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic rattled supply chain services for school cafeterias, which continue to be ongoing. A July 2023 USDA report found 97% of school food authorities surveyed between November 2022 and January 2023 experienced one or more supply-chain related issues, including increased costs and staff or product shortages.
Milleson is one of them, with Walla Walla’s cafeterias still facing supply chain issues in addition to the looming milk carton shortage. However, Milleson said one of the key lessons that came out of the pandemic is that it taught schools how to be flexible, stay calm and develop effective contingency plans in such emergency scenarios.
But the ongoing supply chain woes are still taking a toll on staff and families, she said. “Food is a basic need and it can create some very high insecurities. Even the rumors of shortages… I see that having an impact on our families across the nation,” Milleson said.
Dairy suppliers have pointed their fingers at packaging manufacturer Pactiv Evergreen as the source of the milk carton supply issue, according to Packaging Dive.
Milleson speculates the increase in states and districts serving universal school meals could be contributing to the carton supply shortage as well. All Walla Walla students receive free meals as the district is enrolled in the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that serves free meals to all students in high-poverty schools and districts.
The dairy company Walla Walla works with told Milleson that demand has recently increased by 35%. That need skyrocketed when school started back up this fall, she added.
“With any manufacturer, it takes some time to catch up when the demand has raised that quickly,” Milleson said. “It’s a good problem to have that more kids are eating meals and more kids are drinking milk. It’s kind of a temporary glitch until some of our manufacturers get caught up with those increases.”