Milk Pilot

Poplar Bluff first to participate in national milk pilot designed to reduce waste
Posted on 02/11/2020
Trish Wilson

Poplar Bluff Schools became the first of two districts in the country to launch a bulk milk dispenser pilot program on Monday, Feb. 10, rolling out about $20,000 in grant-funded cafeteria equipment. 

Milk is now being served in washable plastic cups instead of wax-coated cardboard cartons on reusable trays in place of disposable Styrofoam in an effort to reduce waste and increase dairy consumption among students at the Middle School and Lake Road Elementary. 

“It comes down to what I call the three T’s: taste, temperature and trash,” explained Dixie Harden, Chartwells food service director for R-I. “If the kids don’t like it, they won’t consume it, and a colder temperature (dropping from 41 to 36 degrees) is gonna make a huge difference in how the product tastes. And the reduction we can make daily in terms of trash is just astronomical.” 

More than 244,000 milk cartons were thrown away at the Middle School in the past year, and nearly 90,000 at Lake Road, according to Harden. North of 6,500 meals are served per day district-wide on disposable trays, she further estimated. 

“We need to do something, even if it just makes a small difference,” Harden stated. “If we did this across the district, look at the impact we could have.” 

One of Harden’s first conversations she had with Superintendent Dr. Scott Dill a few years ago was about all the waste produced during meal times, she recalled. At the Middle School alone, 250 trash bags are used per week, filling multiple dumpsters, according to the custodial staff. Having helped eliminate Styrofoam trays at her previous district, Harden began trying to identify grant opportunities, initially to no avail.

This fall, Harden continued her discussions with executives from the Compass Group, Chartwells’ parent company, who connected her with dairy industry leaders, and the pilot study was created, she said. Nutritionists, equipment distributors and milk suppliers from the various entities involved visited Poplar Bluff in December to hash out the details. 

Funded by the National Dairy Council, equipment from Hubert was installed in the school lunchrooms, including six milk dispensers plus new dishwasher racks. Prairie Farms Dairy agreed to supply the bagged milk choices approved by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education: chocolate and 1 percent reduced fat. The plastic trays, pre-owned in district storage, would be used to better support the weight of the 8-ounce cups, hopefully reducing spillage.  

Data will be collected—including monitoring additional hot water used, chemical solution purchased for dishwashing and reallocated manpower—to determine whether the green initiative is scalable. The other school system that will be participating in the study is located in Rhode Island. 

“The only reason the vision has become a reality is because of Ms. Harden’s persistence in her efforts to craft this solution for Poplar Bluff and for our kids,” Dill commented. “The model appears to be sustainable, and I think it will enhance the dining experience for our students while simultaneously providing an opportunity for us to reduce our environmental footprint in terms of the volume we are adding to the landfill on a weekly basis as a school district.” 

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Cutline: Trish Wilson of Chartwells dresses in a cow costume at a milk dispenser in the Middle School cafeteria to promote the launch of the new pilot program.

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