USDA rule prompts schools to discontinue local milk

MIDDLEBURY — Rebekah Chamberlain was disappointed when she showed up for her first week of classes as a high schooler. Last year as an eighth-grader in middle school, she’d been told she could buy locally produced Monument Farms milk in the Middlebury Union High School cafeteria.
But when lunchtime came around last month, Monument Farms milk was nowhere to be found.
“It’s, like, the best milk,” said Chamberlain, 14, of Bridport.
After offering it in their cafeterias for decades, three Addison County high schools — Middlebury, Vergennes and Mount Abraham union high schools — have stopped selling Monument Farms milk, which is produced in Weybridge. A new federal rule forbids high schools to sell milk in containers larger than 12 ounces. The smallest bottle Monument Farms makes is 16 ounces, and the company has decided — at least for now — not to reconfigure its bottling line.
“Part of what has kept us around this long is keeping things as simple as possible, and not trying to copy everything all the big processors do,” said Jon Rooney, president of the family run dairy. Complying with the new federal rule would have been expensive and time-consuming, he said.
“We have to stay as efficient as possible,” Rooney said.
The new 12-ounce limit was established this summer by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ironically, the same agency operates a Farm to School Program that encourages schools to buy milk from local farmers. Dairy is Vermont’s leading agricultural industry.
A USDA nutritionist in Boston said the agency would be happy to work with Monument Farms and other local dairies to look for ways to make production changes affordable. But the USDA has no plan to relax the 12-ounce limit, which is based on recommendations by the nonprofit Institute of Medicine.
“It’s really all about looking at the long-term interest of the kids, by teaching them about appropriate portion sizes and moderation and a healthy diet,” said the nutritionist. “It’s really related to the obesity concern.”
The nutritionist asked not to be identified by name, citing USDA policy.
Hot breakfasts and lunches at local high schools typically come with an 8-ounce carton of mass-produced milk. Until school opened at the end of August, however, students could buy a 16-ounce bottle of local milk at MUHS by paying extra at the a la carte window.
At the start of the school year, cafeterias at MUHS and VUHS stocked only 8-ounce cartons of Hood milk, which a company spokeswoman said came from a processing plant in Concord, N.H.
At Mount Abe the cafeteria offered only 8-ounce cartons of Garelick Farm milk from a plant in Lynn, Mass.
Late in September, Mount Abe began selling milk a la carte in 12-ounce containers from Kimball Brook Farm, an organic dairy in North Ferrisburgh (see story). Still, as at the other schools, the vast majority of the school’s milk comes from out-of-state plants.
The disappearance of Monument Farms milk was a big disappointment to students like Chamberlain. As a special treat at her eighth-grade graduation ceremony at Middlebury Union Middle School in June, the school offered 16-ounce bottles of Monument Farms chocolate milk — a product the middle school cafeteria didn’t sell.
MUHS NINTH-GRADER Ryan Morgan was disappointed when he found that he couldn’t get locally produced milk at the high school.
Chamberlain’s hopes rose briefly last month when Ryan Morgan, a freshman from Middlebury who shares her homeroom, showed up at MUHS with a 16-ounce bottle of Monument Farms chocolate milk. But Morgan didn’t get the drink at the cafeteria — his father bought it for him at a convenience store on the way to school.
“I don’t think it makes much sense,” Morgan said of the USDA’s 12-ounce limit. “Milk is good for you.”
Ian Gill, a senior from Whiting, also questioned the wisdom of limiting portion sizes, especially when students can buy as many portions of milk as they want. Even after the USDA rule change, there’s nothing to stop a student from buying four 8-ounce milk cartons and drinking an entire quart.
“I think the rule is dumb,” Gill said.
The USDA rules on milk servings apply to public secondary schools; private colleges are not bound by them. Middlebury College’s 2,500 students can drink all the Monument Farms milk they want at the campus’ three main dining halls, said Dan Detora, director of food service operations.
“All of our milk comes from Monument Farms,” Detora said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a product that’s better.”
The college considers its partnership with Monument Farms a good example of sustainability and of promoting the local economy, Detora said.
Middlebury College senior Ethan Roy, an MUHS graduate, grew up drinking Monument Farms milk, and he said he’s grateful for the “basically unlimited supply” available on campus.
“If it were not in the dining halls, I would miss it tremendously,” Roy wrote in an e-mail. “Monument Farms makes the best chocolate milk I have ever had, and I do not think I could find an adequate replacement anywhere.”
In a statement Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said he supports the USDA’s goal of getting local high school students to develop healthy habits. But Welch also said he’d like to see the agency “provide flexibility and support for schools and producers who want to provide students with healthy local food.”
“Nutritious school lunches should be a priority, but so should the ability of Vermont schools to purchase local food products,” Welch’s statement said. “The new focus on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and portion sizes in the federal school lunch program support healthy eating. Vermonters also know that local food like Monument Farms milk is fresh, tastes great, and supports our agricultural economy.”
Founded in 1930 by Richard and Marjory James, Monument Farms is a well-known local dairy with about 500 cows on in Weybridge. Cows are milked twice a day; workers truck the milk to a small plant less than half a mile down the road from the milking parlor. There, workers process the milk, bottle it, and refrigerate it.
Company trucks distribute the milk as far north as the Canadian border and as far south as Orwell.
Rooney, the company president, runs Monument Farms with two of his cousins, Peter and Bob James. All three are graduates of MUHS. Peter James coaches football there; he and Jon help paint the grass turf at Doc Collins Field before home football games on Friday nights.
Rooney said he is disappointed the USDA chose to limit serving size. “All the science points to the benefit of milk and dairy products,” Rooney said. But at least for now, Rooney said, Monument Farms has decided it’s not economically feasible to package milk in the smaller containers.
Editor’s note: This story was reported and written by Marvella Avery, Brady Larocque, Ashton Bates, Lucas Plouffe amd Collin Champine under the direction of teacher Matthew Cox.

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