#3 The Price of Spilt Milk

This weekend I attended a conference at Shelburne Farms, in which we discussed the humanization of school systems. We had met in a cozy, neutral colored, Vermont aesthetic room, in which I was faced with a diverse group of people, whom had traveled from as far as Detroit, Michigan. Throughout the discussion, I was struck with how much the effort of humanization in a classroom coincided with our work at What’s the Story?. Humanization surrounds creating an environment that is encouraging of vulnerability, and honesty and in meeting with, and conversing with stakeholders of a social issue, humanization seems to be of high importance. Understanding the history, and the origin of the dairy industry remains as a vital requirement for approaching conversations with people who are associated to the social concern of which I’m researching, and is the extent of what I explored this week.

Some of the earliest dairy cows were transported to the U.S. in the early 1600s by European immigrants, and it wasn’t until the late 1800s that cattle were bred specifically for dairy purposes. During that time, milk was produced by individuals from their homes, and were primarily for family and local use. Vermont agriculture was established in the early 19th century, when large herds of cattle were transported to farms along the eastern coast. The opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823 and the less significant Erie Canal in 1825, made Vermont easily accessible for meat and grain imports, and though their quantity of staples increased, their prices to plummeted. It wasn’t until the early 1900s, when populations in the U.S. increased dramatically, and cities were highly developed, that mass production of dairy products ignited. Innovation, such as the Mehring milking machine made it easy to produce large quantities of clean milk more efficiently. During this time, since refrigerated train cars had yet to be invented, Vermont could only trade in a local proximity, and products such as cheese and butter became prominent.

During the 20th century, dairy’s reputation changed dramatically through advertising and commercializing. In 1940, a federally subsidized program was installed which would provide free milk to children who couldn’t afford milk products. The program existed in 15 low-income elementary schools across Chicago, with 13,256 children enrolled. Later that year, another program began in New York, which had 123 schools participated over the course of one month. The program continued to expand nationally, and gained interest in other states from across the country until 1943, when it ceased to exist, and was instead replaced by a school lunch milk program, which in 1946 became part of the National School Lunch program.

This history provided a lot of insight on how the consumption of milk has changed over time. Currently, the average person drinks 18 gallons of milk, where as during the 1970s, it was around 30 gallons. As Dr. Julie Smith, a veterinarian and professor at the University of Vermont explains, the appeal of milk has decreased since childhood. Before milk was mass produced as it is now, as a child, the idea of a refreshing, cold glass, of fresh, whole milk was very appealing, whereas currently, as a child the only interaction you might have with milk is a paper, or plastic bottle of skim milk that had most likely warmed to room temperature at some point before being re-chilled.

The dairy industry is the clear cause of the veal industry, and in considering solutions to the mass production of veal, I wonder why milk is still necessary in a lunchroom, especially when 43 million gallons of milk was dumped just last year due to a surplus of produced milk. Considering a single cow produces 2,300 gallons of milk a year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, that means that 18,700 cows went into producing that milk. This means that if every heifer gave birth to a calf that year, 18,700 calves were born, and out of that 18,700 calves, if 50% are bulls, 9,350 bulls were sent to veal plants across the country, for literally nothing. On top of that, farmers were in no way benefiting from that loss of milk. Many farmers across the country, and especially in Vermont are struggling from a decrease in milk prices, and a surplus supply of milk.

By the end of this investigation, is has been extremely interested learning about how farming, and it’s reputation has changed over time, along with the impact of school systems on milk production, and I’m excited to see what else I can learn from the dairy industry’s history and how the dairy industry is developing and changing.



Featured Image: Eduardo Sciammarella. Spilt Milk. 

“Agriculture and Industry in Vermont.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/centralvermont/agind1.htm

“Dairy Farmers Pour Out 43 Million Gallons of Milk Due to Surplus.” Time Magazine. October 13, 2016. http://time.com/4530659/farmers-dump-milk-glut-surplus/

“Early Developments in the American Dairy Industry.” https://specialcollections.nal.usda.gov/dairy-exhibit

“Plunge in Milk Prices Stresses Dairy Farmers.” AgWeb. https://www.agweb.com/article/plunge-in-milk-prices-stresses-dairy-farmers–naa-associated-press/

“School Milk Programs.” USDA. May 23, 2017  https://www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/history_11

Smith, Julie. Personal Interview. 2017.

“Why Are Americans Drinking Less Cow’s Milk? Its Appeal Has Curdled.” National Public Radio. May 16, 2017.


Lena Ashooh

4 Responses to “#3 The Price of Spilt Milk

  • Tom McKenna
    6 years ago

    Hi Lena,
    I loved reading this history of the expansion of dairy in the nation and Vermont. Just yesterday, a 5th grader sent to my office for discipline, stared at his unopened carton of lukewarm 1% milk and asked me, “Why do we have to get milk at lunch when everyone just puts them back in the ‘share bin’?” I thought it was a great question.

    Your history makes me wonder what proportion school meals make up from our national consumption statistics.

    In any case, schools probably don’t consume a whole lot of veal. Is your research to date suggesting that lowering the production of milk in VT might be a good idea? I know in some industries, like commercial fishing here in AK and also in New England, the federal gov. has stepped in to buy out producers in order to bring harvests down, and limit the number of producers. Is your research suggesting a similar thing might be sensible for VT? Is there anything like that going on, or being talked about, either for the sake of milk prices (probably more likely) or for the sake of humane treatment of the young bulls (I’d guess less likely)? Or maybe that’s not really where your research is leading your thinking?

    If you have time, please tell me a few other things about the “humanizing schools” sessions. Love the theme for a conference and wish I could have been there.

    Happy Wednesday!

    We’re entering rainy October here in coastal, AK. My work takes me to steamy VT every summer, but I sure wish I could get there this time of year.


    • Hi Tom,

      Thank you so much for your comment! It’s so interesting to hear that even fifth graders are thinking about the production of milk. Your question about school meals’ proportion to national consumption is a really great one, and I’m actually exploring that, along with the National School Lunch policy, in my next blog post!

      What I was hoping to explore in my last research was how much impact the production of dairy for school lunches had on the veal industry. I think that it is crazy the amount of milk wasted every day, and the amount of bull calves that are impacted as a result of that waste. Many people argue that decreasing the production of milk would negatively impact farmers, but farmers are in no way benefiting from dumping milk. Milk prices in America have dropped dramatically, and I wonder if farms produced less milk for a higher price, more humanely, farmers’ economic status would become more stable. I never considered ways for the federal government to be in more control over the dairy and veal industries beyond increasing regulation standards, and I think that the fishing buyout that you mentioned is really interesting. Recently, I heard on NPR about a dairy program that bought a large amount of cattle from smaller farms, so that the price of milk on those farms would increase, and the program got in trouble for price fixing.

      The conference I attended was really interesting! It was run by an organization based in inner city Detroit, called People in Education, whose goal is to humanize school systems. The conference revolved around what it means to humanize education, why humanizing education is so important, and what it actually means to be human.

      Once again, thanks so much for your feedback! I love thinking about the ideas you pose, along with the similarities and differences between Alaska and Vermont.

      I hope you have a great weekend!


  • Hi Lena,
    That sounds like such an interesting conference to be part of! I’m glad your experience with WtS has been a more humanized approach to education. I agree that it’s invaluable to have a place where you can be vulnerable and do meaningful work.

    I love that you’re digging into the history of the milk industry to better understand the present situation. I was really interested to read about how federal subsidies and the school lunch program has impacted milk production over the years. Your comments about declining popularity and surplus of milk makes me wonder: Why is milk still in the lunch room? Is this due to continued subsides and/or lobbying by the dairy industry? Are the kinds of milk being provided to kids actually the most healthy beverage option? Years ago, I worked for a free summer camp program for youth, and at every meal we were required to give each kid a glass of milk before allowing them other drink options (including water) because all the funding for food was through the Free & Reduced Lunch Program. So much milk went to waste because kids refused to drink it.

    At the same time, I wonder how all these questions relate back to the veal industry. Are you thinking that by reducing our overall demand for milk, there would be a consequent reduction in the number of bulls born? If so, there’s a bigger question about how that would impact the livelihood of dairy and veal farmers.

    Lots of interesting avenues to explore!

    – Fallon

    • Hi Fallon,

      Thanks so much for your comment! Historically, milk was first introduced to school lunches as a subsidy for children who couldn’t afford milk at home, and was a way for students to receive the nutrients that they were missing in their diet. I think that this has changed drastically over the following years in the sense that many children do not want to drink milk, so I think that the continued requirement of milk in the lunchroom is a combination of both the things you mentioned, a result of outdated legislation, along with lobbying for the dairy industry. The current policy surrounding school milk programs is part of the National School Lunch Program, and in the most recent school lunch the 2017 Edition of the Eligibility Manual for School Mealspolicy, I found that milk is required to be offered in a cafeteria, and is required to be a free option for students.

      I think that the amount of milk wasted in schools is a huge factor in the veal industry. If we were to cut back on that unnecessary production of milk, many fewer veal calves would be sent to the veal industry. Last year, 43 billion gallons of milk were wasted due to a surplus production of milk, this means that over 9,000 bull calves were sent to veal plants due to that production. For me, this seems incredibly crazy. Many people argue that decreasing the production of milk would negatively impact farmers, but farmers are in no way benefiting from dumping milk. Milk prices in America have dropped dramatically, and I wonder if farms produced less milk for a higher price, farmers’ economic status would become more stable.

      Once again, thanks so much for your feedback! I love thinking about all the questions that you pose.


Leave a Reply Text

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *