DAIRY INDUSTRY SOUR ON MILK CHANGE

NEW YORK - Whole milk is being expelled from the largest school district in the country here, much to the chagrin of the dairy industry.One percent and fat-free milk will replace whole milk in all New York City schools by the end of the month. Skim chocolate milk will still be served on a limited basis.Groups representing dairy producers contend that when presented with lower-fat and fewer flavored

NEW YORK - Whole milk is being expelled from the largest school district in the country here, much to the chagrin of the dairy industry.

One percent and fat-free milk will replace whole milk in all New York City schools by the end of the month. Skim chocolate milk will still be served on a limited basis.

Groups representing dairy producers contend that when presented with lower-fat and fewer flavored milk options, many of the nearly 1.1 million schoolchildren in Big Apple schools will skip milk all together. About 500,000 half-pint cartons of milk are consumed in these schools each day, according to Margie Feinberg, spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education.

Milk is the only beverage served as part of the city schools' free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch program, for which most children are eligible, Feinberg said.

"It's tough to make [these milk options] palatable to kids," said Rick Naczi, executive vice president of U.S. sales and marketing at Rosemont, Ill.-based Dairy Management, which builds demand for dairy on behalf of dairy producers. "Most schools offer second and third flavored milk options [in addition to skim chocolate milk] like strawberry and vanilla milk. New York City schoolchildren are being given less choice, and nutritionally they're going to be less well off."

Milk consumption is down 5% in schools when reduced-fat and skim chocolate milk is offered, according to Feinberg. Skim chocolate milk will only be offered to students about three days a week, she said. Consumption is down 15% on the days the schools only offer reduced-fat white milk.

City schools tested additional reduced-fat flavored milks, including strawberry and vanilla, but officials ultimately decided not to offer them, Feinberg said.

"This is part of a larger initiative that we're taking on to provide more nutrition to students," she said. "Students need to be alert and healthy in order to learn."

However, the dairy industry sees the effort as misguided.

"[New York City schools] are looking at the wrong issue here," Naczi said. "We're going to continue to work with not only the New York City school district, but other districts on policies that don't narrowly focus on individual nutrients but on the best interests of children."

The Dietary Guidelines encourage Americans to consume three servings of non-fat and low-fat milk and milk products as part of a healthy diet. A cup of 1% milk has 50 fewer calories and 5.5 fewer grams of fat than whole milk. Skim milk has 70 fewer calories and zero fat, compared to a single serving of whole milk, which has 8 grams of fat. Skim chocolate milk contains about 60 more calories than plain skim milk.

Although they contain sweetener, flavored milks provide the same nutrients and benefits as unflavored milk, according to an article that appeared in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

The option of flavored milk also contributes to greater milk consumption in schools, according to results of the School Milk Pilot Test that was performed for the National Dairy Council and the American School Food Service Association. It found that school milk sales increased by 18% when extra flavors of milk and plastic packaging were offered to students.

Changes in school milk policies could impact retail sales of milk.

"If you change a child's [milk consumption] patterns at school it could have an impact on [consumption in] the home," Naczi said. "But when it comes to the average child, the healthiest meals they're getting are the ones that are served at school."

The move to reduced-fat milk isn't limited to schools. Bellevue, Wash.-based Costco Wholesale Corp. plans to cut the fat content of its private-label Kirkland-brand organic milk from 2% to 1% in response to its members' demand.

"We know that our members have been requesting a lower-fat option and we would eventually like to have all varieties of milk available in organic when supplies will allow it," John Lee, Costco buyer, corporate food and sundries, told SN last month.

Milk sales are down, and whole milk in particular has been hit hard by the downward trend. Volume sales of whole milk and skim/low-fat milk declined 6.69% and 1.64%, respectively, compared to a year ago, according to Information Resources Inc.'s food market data that covers the 52 weeks ending Dec. 25, 2005.

The milk switch is part of a broad program New York City schools have embarked on to offer children healthier food. The district is reformulating 20 menu items to cut down on sodium and fat, according to Feinberg. Canned vegetables are being replaced with fresh or frozen vegetables and white bread has been replaced with whole wheat bread.

Vending machine items like potato chips that contain trans fat are being replaced with baked potato chips, while soft drinks are being replaced with Snapple 100% juice drinks and water. The water and Snapple served from vending machines are not offered as part of the reduced-cost and free meal programs.

The whole milk phase-out that began in September takes place in conjunction with an expanded physical education program, Feinberg said.