Chalkboard sign that reads "Fresh Organic Vermont Milk from Miller Farm"

Local Milk for Local Schools: A Sustainable Success Story

By Olga Moriarty, Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership 

When Miller Farm in Vernon, Vermont, introduced its pilot program supplying local organic milk in bulk to local schools, it faced several challenges.

Issues like market demand, fair pay for premium products, and student acceptance loomed large. However, as the project progressed, it became clear that these hurdles were surmountable, leading to a sustainable partnership between a regional dairy farmer and a school district committed to local sourcing. 

In the fall of 2023, Miller Farm, with support from a Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center grant, initiated the production of bulk milk for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union (WNESU). With collaboration from the school district, the project aimed to transition three school cafeterias from conventional milk cartons to locally sourced organic milk in 5-gallon bags that would be served via stainless steel dispensers. The goal was to create a scalable, replicable product line that promotes Vermont organic dairy products while enhancing nutrition, food safety, and waste reduction in schools.  

Initially launched in three schools, the project has since expanded to twelve.

Local distributor Upper Valley Produce facilitates statewide delivery. Miller Farm now ships approximately 250 gallons of milk to schools weekly. Miller Farm’s diversification into bulk milk production has enhanced business profitability by integrating skim and 1% milk, which are by-products of making cream and half-and-half, into reduced-fat products compliant with National School Lunch Program guidelines. 

The cost of the transition to organic milk was a concern from the beginning. WNESU and Miller Farm agreed on a payprice that was fair for the processor, but nearly twice the cost of conventional milk. Harley Sterling, WNESU’s Nutrition Director, explained that the transition has proven to be cost-neutral due to the significant reduction in waste and associated cost savings.

“The waste reduction has been profound,” Sterling reported. By offering milk in bulk dispensers, students have become more mindful of their consumption, resulting in minimal milk waste compared to the previous carton-based system. Additionally, there’s far less physical waste from the disposal of cartons and the pivot to reusable cups. Sterling says he estimates that WNESU will save money this year on milk despite the upgrade to a local organic product.  

Tastes Like Real Milk

The initiative’s timing aligns with the increased demand for school milk following the passing of Vermont’s Universal School Meals Act. It also coincides with a national shortage of milk cartons, which has yet to affect Vermont schools but is a factor when considering a move to bulk formats in schools. Not only does it produce less waste, but locally-produced milk offers a better-tasting product. Students in WNESU cafeterias are often heard saying, “This tastes like real milk,” referring to the cold, fresh flavor.  

12th graders at Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol, VT, enjoy fresh milk from Miller Farm during lunch.
12th graders at Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol, VT, enjoy fresh milk from Miller Farm during lunch.

Looking ahead, Miller Farm has the capacity to increase production for other local school districts. Partnering with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), resources are available to assist with a transition to Vermont organic bulk milk. NOFA-VT can offer guidance on dispenser versus gallon formats, farm-to-school programming like the Dairy in the Classroom curriculum, in-school promotion of local producers, and field trips to the farm. 

Building Institutional Milk Sales

The hope is that this pilot will encourage more Vermont processors to take advantage of a largely untapped institutional market and build on the successes of Miller Farm’s pilot. Farmer Pete Miller welcomes other organic processors to expand to offer their milk to local districts.

“We feel it is critical to raise a generation who knows where their food comes from, and that they as consumers will eventually vote with their purchasing power to enact the changes they want to see in this world,” Miller said.

For more information, visit Miller Farm, or contact the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont and the Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership

Participating schools: Bellows Fall Union High School, Bellows Falls Middle School, Rockingham Central Elementary, Saxtons River Elementary, Westminster Central, Grafton Elementary, The Prosper Valley School, Woodstock Union High School and Middle School, Woodstock Elementary, Leland and Gray Middle and High School, and Mt. Abraham Union High School, Vernon Elementary School. 

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