As we head into June Dairy Month, the impacts and uncertainties of COVID-19 are challenging all of us to think and act differently. In the days, weeks and months filled with ambiguity, people are increasingly seeking familiar, convenient and comforting foods, such as milk, cheese, ice cream and butter – and we’re doing our part to make sure those items are safe and accessible.
As always, the checkoff’s top priority is to keep the milk moving by building demand and trust in dairy and dairy farming. And while that remains our overall goal, we have reprioritized specific efforts within the checkoff’s business plan to navigate the new environment created by the global pandemic.
I’d like to share some of our progress across our state and regional checkoff teams and checkoff partners.
Schools have always been important to dairy farmers – about 7 percent of our fluid milk supply moves through schools, and National Dairy Council (NDC) has enjoyed a rich legacy of providing nutrition education and health and wellness programming in schools. With schools closed due to shelter-in-place orders, our goal is to make sure the 30 million children who rely on lunch and milk at school are still getting the nourishment they need. To do this, we’re convening and activating the industry, including GENYOUth, local checkoff groups, technology companies and USDA to bring solutions to the table.
We’re also working with foodservice leaders such as Domino’s to help school nutrition personnel distribute and deliver meals outside of the school building. And we’re exploring new supply chain solutions to keep dairy cold and accessible.
Finally, our NDC team helps inform and provide guidance on national and local government regulation shifts to minimize supply disruption in schools. For example, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service recently provided waivers for its school feeding programs that offer flexibility in what can be served to children, including fat levels and serving sizes of milk.
In 2012, DMI began its partnership with Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks that feed 40 million food-insecure people. Through checkoff-led work nationally and locally, as well as contributions from USDA and MilkPEP, about 353 million pounds of dairy were donated through Feeding America last year. Additionally, work was done to advance discussions around the economic viability of this channel for dairy farmers – something the checkoff is continuing to prioritize.
Typically, most food that goes into food banks comes from grocery donations, an avenue that has dried up given restaurants are closed and consumers are purchasing most meals through the retail channel. So, DMI is working to redirect milk and dairy foods from other sources across the value chain into food banks.
In one example, we worked with state and regional staff to quantify the demand for milk in local food banks. We then connected Kroger and Feeding America to co-ops with excess supply, resulting in more than 200,000 gallons processed directly for the Feeding America pipeline. Publix is conducting similar efforts and has provided 100,000 gallons to Feeding America.
In addition to driving dairy sales, DMI’s checkoff partners have generously stepped up with donations and promotions across the country. Domino’s will donate roughly 10 million slices of pizza and has worked with GENYOUth, Florida Dairy Farmers and United Dairy Industry of Michigan to help facilitate this in local markets. Taco Bell has offered free Doritos Locos Tacos on “Taco Tuesday” and McDonald’s has donated $7.2 million in food, including more than $1 million in dairy, to 140 hunger organizations.
One of the biggest concerns farmers, consumers and others across the industry expressed was retailers placing purchase limits on milk and cheese. With the supply chain alive and well, DMI and state and regional staff worked with national and local grocery chains to successfully have many purchase limit signs removed by mid-April. Organizations including American Dairy Association North East also carried the message to retailers representing about 1,400 stores in its territory.
We also are working with retailers to align with new consumer purchasing behaviors, namely eCommerce, to position dairy for sustainable sales growth.
Finally, we focused our marketing and communication efforts to share with thought leaders, media and consumers the essential role that dairy and dairy farmers play in supporting families and communities during this time.
The work we’ve been doing on your behalf for years, along with strong industry collaboration, has prepared us to navigate a new normal and to stay the course on driving sales and building trust on behalf of America’s dairy farmers – a group whose resiliency and commitment during the toughest times inspires us all.