Got milk… Cardboard boxes? School cafeterias won’t, thanks to shortages

Half-pint milk cards, served in cafeterias and dining halls across the country, are ubiquitous on the lunch trays of millions of college students. But in some areas, they will soon disappear.

According to suppliers and state officials, the nationwide shortage of cartons is hurting the dairy industry, leaving schools to consider other ways to keep the beverage in students’ diets.

Milk is served to millions of children across the country every school day, part of a government-subsidized meals and supplements program. But schools in several countries face “milk supply chain challenges” due to packaging issues, a recent announcement by the US Department of Agriculture warned. The department advised that schools affected by the shortage could temporarily be flexible about whether or not to provide milk with meals.

School districts in New York, Pennsylvania, California, Washington and other states have said they are preparing for a shortage of supplies, which is expected to last until early 2024. Hospitals, prisons and other cafeteria environments are also likely to be affected.

“We think it will hit within a week,” said Vickie Scroger, food service manager for Holley Central School District in western New York state. “We are waiting for them to tell us that we no longer have cards.” She learned about the impending shortage last week from a supplier, she said, and the district sent letters home to notify parents.

But for 26 years, Ms. Scroger said, the lack of milk cartons was an exception. “It’s never happened to me,” she said. Instead of serving it in cartons, it would buy milk in larger quantities and pour it into glasses.

To cope, many school districts will also buy milk in bulk and dispense it to students. Others said that when the supply of carton milk was used up, they would do so serve the milk in cups with lids or offer students juice or water instead of that. In Pennsylvania, a County in Center County said it will provide self-serve milk stations for middle and high school students and distribute them to elementary students.

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

Milk supplies remain “strong”, according to the announcement from the Northeast Dairy Producers Association, a group that represents dairy producers in the region. But milk processors were looking for solutions to store milk in serving-size containers not only in schools, but also in hospitals, nursing homes and prisons.

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