Saving the world one less milk carton at a time

Milk dispensers cut down on packaging and food waste. Why doesn’t your school use them?

Brendan Seibel

It’s almost lunchtime at Columbia Valley Elementary. The counter’s rollup window is opened and workers are rushing around getting hamburgers ready, laying out sides, steeling themselves for the coming students.

Makayla and Scott are leading a tour through the cafeteria of some recent sustainability improvements that their school’s Green Team has enacted. There’s a waste sorting station to keep trash and recycling separated. Around one corner is a waster refilling station exactly like you’d see in an airport. Both student docents agree that the water from this fountain tastes better than from any of the others.

But it’s the last stop that’s brought me here, two stainless steel machines parked on heavy-duty utility carts ten feet from the lunch counter. In January Columbia Valley joined a handful of schools throughout the Pacific Northwest using milk dispensers to cut down on the gallons of milk being poured down drains and to eliminate the hundreds of cartons being thrown away every day.


The Federal government first dove into school lunch programs during the Great Depression, in part to make sure kids were getting at least one meal a day, in large part to prop up farmers and dairies teetering on the brink of insolvency. Today around thirty million students receive subsidized lunches, and many of them are also enrolled in breakfast and after school programs. The beverage of choice has always been milk.

During the 70s and 80s centralized kitchens became favored by school districts looking to cut expenses and streamline their processes. New school buildings didn’t need kitchens anymore, meals were prepackaged and delivered and included a carton of milk. And all that packaging and leftover food ended up in the trash.

Tons of rotting paper slowly decaying in the ground and producing methane worries Scott. His concern for the environment is a core part of why Columbia Valley even has their two milk dispensers. “What I really like is that now we’re not throwing away all that paper,” he says. “We’re not having a lot of waste left of milk,” adds Makayla.

One of the cafeteria workers passing by stops to praise both Scott and Makayla for how good they are teaching the little kids how to use the dispensers.

Third graders have lined up at the register so quietly I’m only now aware that they’re in the cafeteria. They hand over their color-coded ticket to the cashier, grab a hamburger, choose a side of veggies or fruit or both, take an empty plastic cup and fill it at the milk dispensers. Simple. Easy. Child’s play.

Makayla helped survey her peers about why they didn’t finish their milk when it was served in cartons. “They told us a bunch of reasons. It was frozen. They didn’t like it. It was too much.”

The students have been saying they like dispenser milk better, and administrators confirms that they’re buying less and selling more a la carte. Less than a month since switching to bulk milk Columbia Valley custodians are pouring out half as much wasted milk as before. The surge in popularity makes Scott worry that they’ll run out of milk money, just like how the Green Team spent the rest of their budget on planter boxes.

Scott is also worried about missing lunch and rushes off as soon as he sees his group enter the cafeteria. Makayla keeps watching kids pour themselves milk. They keep taking too much. A cafeteria worker rushes to wipe up a small spill.

At ten years old and in the fifth grade Makayla is a veteran of the Green Team. She went to a state Green Schools summit where she first learned of milk dispensers amidst the teacher breakouts and raffles and other eco-conscious educational events. She has the satisfaction of helping to enact change in her school, even if the learning curve has been a little steep.

She excuses herself, rushing over to a table where an argument between two students is growing heated.


Green Team members have to come to school early one Friday a month for a meeting. When I asked them why they volunteered Makayla told me that she likes to be involved with the school, to help out. Scott said that he wants to make Columbia Valley a better place. It takes both a willingness to participate and a desire for change to bring a milk dispenser into a school, and it takes a lot of collaboration.

It also takes advocates to push people past their fears of the unknown. Principal Leah Torres was worried about spills, but she was also worried about the eight gallons of milk her cafeteria workers were pouring down the drain every day. In the end she had to trust that her students could handle serving themselves milk without catastrophe grinding lunch service to a halt.

“When the students are really passionate about something and have made a case for why this would be great for the environment, the school, the community, and how they’re going to be involved in making sure that it’s a smooth transition, then parents, teachers, staff get behind it,” she says. “It’s been a really positive experience.”

Milk dispensers are an old, proven technology. Universities still use them. At least one Senate building still uses them. But bringing them back to public school cafeterias has proven to be a difficult task. It takes money, and schools aren’t typically known for having lots of spare cash laying around. It takes kitchens equipped with dishwashers and cafeterias with room for new appliances. It takes electrical wiring that can handle one more plug. It takes staff that agree to take on the extra work of washing cups and replacing drained sacks of milk. It takes a dairy provider who can still fill bulk milk orders.

In a lot of cities like Los Angeles, home to the country’s second largest public school district, there are so many more immediate priorities to address.

Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver operates 37 schools serving about 26 thousand kids, 47 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced lunch at the end of January, 2019. At the end of March that same year Columbia Valley Elementary, where almost 40 percent of the 548 students enrolled qualify for free or reduced lunches, 5855 lunches were served in several shifts.

Los Angeles Unified School District expected over 571 thousand students in its over 1300 schools in the 2018–19 year. Some of the district’s elementary schools enroll over one thousand kids; middle schools cap off at 1800 and high schools at 2500 students. Almost 80 percent of the total district population qualifies for free or reduced lunches, and on average around 296,500 lunches are served daily.

Los Angeles Unified has meatless Mondays, donate their leftovers to certified charities, use a computerized inventory system to curb over-production and track spoilage. Manish Singh, Director of Food Services, wants to do more to curtail food waste and knows that allowing kids to choose how much milk they want is one way to do that, but the final decision is currently out of his hands and at the end of the day his priority is to get kids fed no matter how they get fed.

“We are a district which has a high free and reduced percentage, we have 79.2%,” he says. “We know that we have a population of, I was told, in excess of eighteen thousands kids who are in a homeless situation. We have another 23 thousand plus kids who are in foster homes. So we are serving a population which is very needy. Our goal is to get these kids in so they can get three meals a day.”


No one person makes the decision to swap out milk cartons for dispensers. No one person finds funding, purchases the machines, delivers them to a school, calls the dairy provider to change their order for bulk milk, hangs around to wipe up messes. Every milk dispenser is a collaboration of students, teachers, staff, administrators and custodians — not to mention the workers with county and state government bureaus who have been getting grants together to pay for everything.

And none of the schools I spoke with decided to start buying bulk milk to save money. The cost difference in negligible and it would take years to pay off the cost of machines through increased a la carte sales and saving on trash bills. People have swallowed their fears and taken on all of this extra work because they feel that reducing food and packaging waste is the right thing to do.

I agree with them. This wasn’t an easy article to write. It took a lot of research, phone calls, meetings, emails, getting lost in details and distracted by irrelevancies. There were twists and turns, expanded focus, redirection, a need for harder numbers and dollar amounts that just couldn’t be found. But I’m really happy that it’s come together and has been published by New Food Economy because I think that milk dispensers can help reduce the damage we’re doing to our little world, and because I think the people who have been doing it deserve recognition.

There’s an excerpt from the article below.


Some schools have conducted waste audits in order to gauge the impact of milk dispensers. Cartons are tallied as they’re thrown away and leftover milk is measured in dump buckets a) before a steel cow arrives, then b) a few months after.

Olympia High School reduced their annual waste collection costs by $1,970 by switching to dispensers.

A 2016 estimate shows that Olympia’s schools equipped with dispensers eliminated a massive 350–400,000 empty cartons from the waste stream, and prevented between eight and ten thousand gallons of milk from being poured out. Multiple other districts report that milk sales have gone up while waste has dropped.

In Oregon, the Canby School District introduced steel cows at four elementary schools at the start of the 2018–19 year. According to director of nutrition services Galina Dobson, the combined weekly fluid milk waste before installing steel cows was 280 quarts, equivalent to 1,120 cartons. Afterwards waste had fallen to 191 quarts, equivalent to 766 cartons.

A June 2014 report prepared by Peter Guttchen, then with Thurston County’s Department of Solid Waste (which oversees Olympia), states that Olympia High School reduced their annual waste collection costs by $1,970 by switching to dispensers. That same report estimates that Washington Middle School, also in Olympia, is saving $750 annually on their trash bill. Washington Middle is also estimated to be saving about $12 each month in electrical costs, because they’ve found dispensers to be slightly more efficient than milk coolers.

“When you look at the cost of garbage disposal, recycling costs, can liners, energy costs, custodial labor costs, all of those things drop,” says Guttchen, now with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Please read the full article at New Food Economy.

Brendan Seibel

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Interested in the interesting. Been at @Timeline_Now, @wired, @medium, @motherboard, elsewhere.

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