When most Americans think about hunger, they envision families struggling to have enough to eat in developing or war-torn nations. Yet hunger is a pressing national issue; more than 49 million Americans, almost 16 million of them children, live in food-insecure households, notes Feeding America. And surprisingly, milk is one of the products that the underserved—and the food banks that aid them—ask for most often.
Paradoxically, the U.S. is the world’s second-largest milk producer, notes the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). So milk is a nutritious, efficient and seemingly plentiful source of protein, vitamins and minerals. Jean Ragalie-Carr, president of the National Dairy Council (NDC), calls it “a nutritional gold mine for all of us, but even more critical for those facing hunger.”
Milk’s significance for those in need, and demand, is deepened by the fact that milk is essential in preparing many packaged products donated at food banks, such as macaroni and cheese or breakfast cereal. But there is a large gap between what’s needed and received, and milk is among the least donated items. Shelf-safe milk could help, but there are a few obstacles.
How The Hungry Are Fed
Americans without enough to eat are helped through a network of local and national groups dedicated to feeding the underserved. Feeding America, with more than 200 U.S. food banks, is the largest and distributes 3.9 billion pounds of food and beverages through more than 60,000 pantries, soup kitchens, after-school programs and shelters annually. And while it partners with major food producers and retailers for donations, the organization acknowledges that milk is in short supply at shelters because most of the donations are chilled and hard to distribute. As a result, the 37 million individuals benefitting from Feeding America’s donations receive less than 1 gallon of milk each annually.
Where Challenges Lie
Chilled milk is perishable and needs to stay cold to safely reach the people receiving it. Refrigeration resources in the food bank supply chain—from collection sites, to storage, to distribution—are limited, which increases the risk of spoilage along the chain.
The structure of the U.S. dairy industry also leads to challenges not experienced in dealing with other food companies, points out Ross Fraser, a Feeding America spokesperson. Dairy “companies operate on the local level; no national company could organize getting milk to people around the country,” he says. To help counter that, food banks work with (local) retail partners to enhance their donation models to collect, store and distribute perishables (such as milk) safely, while the NDC works with food banks and local dairy producers to improve procurement efforts, explains Ragalie-Carr.
Since last year, farmers and processors have partnered directly with Feeding America on The Great American Milk Drive, which aims to get milk donations flowing year round. This is especially important during winter months, when donations see a post-holiday drop-off. The milk drive already has made an impact since its inception last April. According to the NDC, more than 114,000 gallons were donated in the first six months. Unfortunately, much more is needed to feed the hunger for milk.
Aseptic Food For Thought
Shelf-safe milk could help fill the gap, but the lag in acceptance of ambient dairy in the U.S. is one stumbling block, notes Todd Shilk, Tetra Pak U.S. and Canada category director for dairy and nutrition. “It is still a small part of the overall market and not often consumers’ first thought for milk,” he says.
During 2014, shelf-safe milk accounted for a mere 0.8 percent of total milk retail sales in the U.S., according to the NDC’s Ragalie-Carr. In contrast, about 95 percent of milk sold in France is shelf safe, notes the Canadian UHT Milk Forum. In the Chinese market, which is relatively new to dairy consumption, about 76 percent of milk consumed is shelf safe, according to Tetra Pak research.
Fraser says 40 percent of people receiving assistance who were polled in its Hunger in America 2014 study wish they received more milk, but about 7 percent indicated they had no way to keep perishable food cold. Shelf-safe milk would alleviate this problem.
In many cases, schools, food-dispensing agencies and other organizations partner to fill the hunger gap for children in need at lunch and outside school. These groups would also benefit from shelf-safe milk.
“Over the last five years, the backpack program has grown 100 percent, from a program that distributed 20 million meals to one that provides 41 million meals to children and their families each year,” says Ragalie-Carr. “These programs often rely on shelf-safe milk.”
Clearly, shelf-safe milk is a great option to offer the underserved high-quality milk. Incorporating it into milk distribution for food banks can help expand current programs and offer new ways to get nutritious food to those who need it. Efforts to supply the nation’s fragmented food bank system with milk would be easier and cost-effective to facilitate without the added concern about refrigeration to prevent spoilage. Yet, achieving this goal may not gain ground until shelf-safe milk becomes more prevalent on retail shelves and among U.S consumers.
Suley Muratoglu, vice president, Marketing & Product Management, Tetra Pak Inc., U.S. & Canada, currently runs the company’s presence in core categories, including dairy, beverage and food. Further industry insights from him can be found at www.doingwhatsgood.us. Tetra Pak (tetrapakusa.com) is the world's leading food processing and packaging solutions company.