June is National Dairy Month, a time when we celebrate Wisconsin’s rich history in dairying and the nutritional benefits of milk and other dairy products. With record volumes of milk being produced, why then, is there not enough milk for our food banks and food pantries to satisfy the needs of their patrons?
The Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin, a repository for food that is distributed to local food pantries, reports that less than one gallon of milk is distributed by pantries per person per year. That may be as much as a teenager would drink in a matter of days in many American households.
The disconnect between the 30-plus billion pounds of milk produced in our state per year and what is available to those in need comes from an ever-efficient food supply chain that lacks flexibility. About 90% of Wisconsin’s milk is made into cheese and other dairy products, leaving only 5% to be sold as fluid milk. Ironically, most of our fluid milk is sent out of state, bottled, and imported back before it appears on our grocery store shelves.
Very few farms in our area bottle their own milk on-site. One exception is Baerwolf Farms, just north of Sun Prairie, which sells directly to Second Harvest from its on-site processing plant under the brand name Sassy Cow Creamery. The short trip into Madison creates a much smaller carbon footprint than milk that comes from out-of-state bottling facilities.
Despite there being fewer and fewer dairy farms in Wisconsin, each individual cow produces record volumes of milk due to improvements in cow genetics and better understanding of the nutritional needs of these animals. Likewise, consolidating milk at large bottling facilities improves efficiency but wreaks havoc when a wrench like COVID-19 is thrown into the system.
The lack of demand from schools and restaurants during the pandemic highlights the risks associated with too much consolidation at processing facilities, whether it is in producing vegetables, pork, beef and chicken or milk. Farmers were asked to dump milk because processing plants do not have the ability to quickly switch from putting milk in half-pint containers for schools or 5-gallon bags for restaurants to putting it in gallon jugs for grocery stores or food banks.
We need the flexibility that could come from more, but less-specialized, food processing facilities on the landscape that are subject to less risk than highly specialized and consolidated operations. We need these types of facilities for small meat processors, artisanal cheese makers and other food so that we are not dependent on only a handful of corporations to feed us. Funds in the multi-billion dollar Farm Bill should be redirected to these activities to help build resilience, so healthy food is available when, where, and in the form it is needed or everyone, not just those who depend on food pantries to meet their nutritional needs.
To ensure that our food banks and food pantries get the milk they need, consider contributing to Second Harvest’s Adopt a Cow program during National Dairy Month (http://www.givedairy.com/). More information about bringing more milk into food banks and food pantries is available at milkforfoodbanks.com.
Carolyn Betz is emerita academic staff from the University of Wisconsin-Madison's College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. She currently works on grant related to regenerative agriculture funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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