HALEYVILLE - The expression “Got Milk?” has never meant as much as it does now, as local school systems are having to consider alternative plans each time they receive milk shipments, thanks to a company closure resulting in milk shortages.
School systems have been placed under an emergency waiver by the State Department of Education through mid-October, meaning that if they do not receive the supply of milk they need to serve students, then schools are allowed to serve either bottled water or juice, according to officials.
School officials know that milk is a nutritious item that the state encourages them to serve to students for their daily breakfasts and lunches, but the amount of milk in each shipments varies, now that Borden Dairy has announced it will close its plants in Alabama and Mississippi by the end of September. The company is under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, according to dairyherd.com.
“About a month ago, we were notified that Borden Dairy would be closing. They have distribution plants in Dothan and in south Mississippi,” stated Emma Anne Hallman, director of the Child Nutrition Program for Haleyville City Schools.
Since the majority of school districts in the state use Borden for milk, the closure announcement has resulted in schools quickly forming alternative plans to receive milk.
“This is a widespread problem,” Hallman noted. “It’s three-fourths of the state.”
Haleyville City Schools and Winston County Schools each receive two shipments of milk per week from Borden, officials said. Haleyville City Schools receives about 6,500 half-pints a week in two shipments, a combination of both white and chocolate milk, Hallman explained.
HCS is part of PACA, a buying consortium, which also includes all school systems in Winston and Marion counties. Several options are on the table, including the consortium bidding on shelf-stable milk, which are cartons of milk not requiring refrigeration, officials said. However, this milk option is more expensive than the usual options, Hallman stated.
PACA put out a bid for a new milk vendor on behalf of the consortium for the shelf-stable milk, but the bid was rejected due to the lack of competition, school officials stated.
“So we were back to square one,” Hallman said.
The state department has advised schools to keep milk within smaller clusters.
“A large distributor might not be able to service the entire state because they don’t have the supply or the delivery trucks or the manpower to make things happen,” said Hallman.
This past week, schools were able to send out another bid for a milk supplier, and those bids are scheduled to be opened at 9 a.m. today, Wednesday, Sept. 21. Based on the bids received, the local boards of education will have to approve the bids for their respective systems before the milk supplier can officially begin shipments, officials said.
Plans are for the Haleyville Board of Education to approve or award the bid for a new milk supplier at their next regular meeting on Monday, Sept. 26.
This bid is for the fresh milk option, not the shelf-stable milk, assured Hallman.
Until the new bid is approved, schools have been advised to expect disruptions in their milk supply, according to Hallman.
For instance, last week, HCS received a shipment of only chocolate milk from Borden, school officials confirmed. Typically, on a weekly basis, HCS receives 2,000 cartons of white milk, according to Hallman.
“When we’re shorted an item, we have to look for other methods and be creative,” Hallman stated.
To offset the shortage, HCS was provided extra cases of water to place into coolers where milk is usually available for students, school officials said.
“This is just a temporary fix,” Hallman assured. “Once we get this new bid awarded, the supply should not be an issue.
“We never want a time where we completely cannot have a fluent choice of milk,” she pointed out. “We have to be patient and offer some flexibility to our lunchrooms, as we are working our hardest to make sure we have an option.”
Katie Coleman, lunchroom manager at Haleyville Elementary, noted staff members have not faced frustration yet, but it is coming.
When the school only received chocolate milk this past week, students were informed they would probably not have enough white milk in stock to last one more day, or until the next shipment of milk arrived.
“I hope we can get plenty of water in so we can make a transition over,” Coleman said.
Each day, the elementary lunchroom staff feeds 325 for breakfast and 600 for lunch, including both students and teachers, Coleman added.
“I use roughly 700 milks a day,” she said.
Hallman noted that milk was a choice for students.
“We offer it to them, but they don’t have to get it,” Hallman said. “They do have a choice, but as far as what comes with their meal, it is white milk or chocolate milk.”
Coleman noted that approximately 85 percent of elementary students drink milk at breakfast, with 75 percent drinking milk at lunch.
More elementary students drink chocolate milk in comparison with white milk, lunchroom officials added. In fact, only 10 percent of students drink white milk for breakfast, Coleman said.
On a daily basis, students can pick up juice from their fruit bar as a fruit choice, so that is considered to be different from milk, Hallman explained.
“We’ll make it work,” Coleman assured. “Kids love milk, so they will probably be upset a little bit that we don’t have milk.”
Student Collin Whitten noted it was difficult to imagine a world without milk.
“What are going to have to do? Are we just going to not drink milk anymore? We won’t be able to eat cereal any more?” Whitten asked.
Hallman agreed that the disruptions in milk service would affect students’ cereal choice as a breakfast item.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, school systems have been dealing with supply chain disruptions for the past two years, school officials said.
“This is just a part of it,” Hallman stated about the milk shortage situation. “This is our normal work load for us, trying to find these substitutions.”
The second shipment of milk received by HCS at the end of last week contained both white and chocolate milk, Hallman told the Alabamian later.
Milk situation at WC Schools
Bart Shannon, who is director of the CNP program for Winston County Schools, stressed they have been able to work together within the system to resolve immediate shortages.
“We appreciate what Borden (Dairy) has done for us. We hate to see them go, but we’re currently in the process of sending out bids to establish a new vendor to take their spot,” Shannon stated.
Shannon noted he was aware of incidents where high schools were able to supply milk from their reserves that offset any shortages at the elementary schools.
“We have had no students at this point who wanted a product that had to go without one,” Shannon pointed out.
“Our schools have worked together as they have needed, to make sure we get that taken care of,” he added. “I hope we are headed in the right direction.”
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.