December 29, 2004 in Nation/World

Kids get a-round to milk

J.M. Hirsch Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Students at Woddbury Middle School in Salem, N.H., show off their choice of milk containers during lunch last week.
(Full-size photo)

Yet another familiar school-days object may be going the way of the inkwell and the slide rule.

Encouraged by a milk industry study that shows children drink more dairy when it comes in round plastic bottles, a growing number of schools are ditching those clumsy paper half-pint cartons many of us grew up with.

Already, more than 1,250 schools have switched to single-serving bottles. While that is a tiny fraction of the nation’s schools, it is a significant jump from 2000, when there were none, according to the National Dairy Council.

“Those damn square containers are awfully hard for kids,” says New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Steve Taylor, who has watched the trend spread to some 320 schools in New England. “Teachers say you can spend the whole lunch period just walking around and opening those containers.”

Though plastic long has been the favored packaging for soda and other drinks, schools sought bottled milk only after a 2002 Dairy Council study found milk consumption increased 18 percent in schools that tested bottles. The study also found that children who drank bottled milk finished more of it.

The change to plastic brings schools closer to overall milk packaging trends. In 2001, more than 82 percent of the nation’s milk was packaged in plastic, up from 15 percent in 1971, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While the growing use of bottles in schools can partly be attributed to ease – educators say plastic caps are easier for children to open, and round bottles fit better in their hands — marketing savvy deserves at least as much credit.

Fast-food chains Wendy’s and McDonald’s replaced their milk cartons with bottles and sales soared.

Bottles also could be a financial boon for school lunch programs, which depend on meal sales to stay afloat.

Though bottled milk costs schools more, Grant Prentice, executive vice president of marketing for the Dairy Council, says high schools that served it during the study saw lunch program participation increase nearly 5 percent. And by some accounts the study underestimated the growth potential.

The milk industry is also likely to benefit. Americans have been drinking less milk since the 1970s. Dairy officials hope reversing that trend among children will result in a lifetime of drinking more milk.

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