Schools look for workarounds as milk carton shortage persists

School nutrition teams are turning to bulk milk and other ways to serve the beverage as the supply of carton material dwindles.
A student grabs a milk carton in the cafeteria
Schools throughout the country have experienced milk shortages this fall due to a shortage of milk carton material. | Photo: Shutterstock

School nutrition programs throughout the country are looking at alternative ways to serve milk as they continue to deal with a nationwide milk carton shortage. 

The shortage started impacting schools earlier this fall. In response to the disruption, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a memo allowing state agencies to permit schools experiencing milk carton shortages to temporarily serve an alternate form of fluid milk or no fluid milk with meals. 

“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 stated.

Representatives from the industry have also shared that they are working with industry partners to find solutions to the issue as quickly as possible. 

“Our processor and supplier members are actively working to resolve the paperboard shortage issue by identifying additional sources, as well as altering operations to reduce the impact to schools as much as possible,” said Alex Walsh, executive director for Northeast Dairy Foods & Suppliers Associations, in statement. “We will continue to work with industry partners and state agencies to ensure schools have a supply of milk and provide nutritious and safe products to students.”

As the industry works to ease the disruption, schools are looking at alternative ways to still offer the beverage. 

Walla Walla Public Schools in Walla Walla, Wash., for example, announced that its Walla Walla Center for Children & Families will temporarily transition to gallon-sized milk containers and other schools in the district will use shelf-stable milk if necessary. The district says the shortage could last for the next several months. 

The disruption is currently only affecting the half-pint milk containers used in school foodservice. Tetra Pak, a food processing and packaging company, said its shelf-stable milk packaging has been unaffected so far. 

“The supply chain for Tetra Pak's chilled gable top and shelf-stable (aseptic) carton packaging is not impacted,” said president and CEO of Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada, in a statement. “[…] We’ve also seen growing interest in our shelf-stable milk cartons.”

Some districts have been experimenting with shelf stable-milk long before the supply chain disruption. Dallas Independent School District, for example, launched a shelf stable-milk pilot at nine of its elementary schools during spring 2022. Results from the pilot revealed that meal participation at the pilot schools went up while milk waste went down. 

The milk carton shortage is the latest in a series of supply chain challenges that have impacted school nutrition operators since the start of COVID. In a study by the USDA, 97% of school nutrition operators said they were still experiencing one or more supply chain-related issues in the first quarter of the 2022-2023 school year.



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