“Steel cows” can prevent food waste and keep empty cartons from ending up in the landfill. Therefore why aren’t much more schools making use of them?
Every college day some 30 million college student eat meals subsidized by the national School Lunch regimen (NSLP). Each of them is licensed has been granted to eight ounces of milk, and also that milk nearly always come in a carton. The issue? Those students leave behind a lot of leftover milk—almost 30 percent, according to new United claims Dept. Of farming data—not to point out tons and tons of empty cartons. Yes sir a the majority of waste.

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Enter the bulk milk dispenser, colloquially recognized as a “steel cow.”

Dispensers replace cartons with bulk milk sacks and also reusable cups, permitting students to pour only what they’ll drink, and also avoid all the wasteful individual packaging. It’s a pleasingly simple waste solution—with suddenly dogged hurdles in the way. Chop budgets, outmoded infrastructure, confusion around NSLP rules, and straightforward logistical concerns have do dispensers surprisingly tricky to implement.

But in a grasp of districts in the Pacific Northwest, cafeteria workers, custodians, institution administrators, and also students room working together to carry steel cows right into their schools. If their initiatives are duplicated throughout the country, the environmental benefits could be massive. Each district looking to embrace milk dispensers would have to overcome their own set of challenges, yet the work-related being done might create a roadmap for others to follow.


Milk dispensers loose resemble advertising coffee makers, v a stainless-steel, refrigerated compartment stacked over pour spouts and also a drip tray. If you’ve ever before gotten milk in, say, a hospital cafeteria or one IKEA, friend probably know the design.

The totality contraption stands roughly three feet tall. Kids place recycle plastic cups—typically through 8-ounce to fill lines—beneath the spigot, work the lever, and presto. A valve opens, milk flows with a plastic tube, the cup filling up. Kids take the exact amount they want, and also waste less as a result. North cups are washed and also used again.

At Columbia sink Elementary in Vancouver, Washington, the school’s environment-friendly Team—student volunteers who help implement techniques like bottle-refilling fountains—convinced their principal to get involved in a county-wide milk dispenser pilot. Two dispensers arrived at the end of January 2019.

Each college day because then, Columbia sink cafeteria workers have actually filled that is pair that twin-spigot devices with five-gallon sacks of nonfat and one-percent milk. A hundred and ten pounds when empty, every dispenser sit on a sturdy, wheeled cart, low sufficient for youngsters to reach and also for employee to restock v a prior panel.

Third-grader Scott Cantonwine want the dispensers after ~ discovering just how much milk to be being wasted. The was component of the team that convinced his college to provide steel cows a try. “Sometimes world won’t even open their milk and also drink it, so the wastes a ton of milk and the carton,” he speak me. “So if we got the plastic washable cups v the milk dispensers, they might get the right amount that milk the they wanted.”


Despite the evident benefits, some college administrators argue that milk dispensers might violate institution lunch regulations collection by the USDA. Schools participating in the NSLP are reimbursed for every having lunch served, as long as meals satisfy nutritional guidelines. A usual concern around milk is that, if colleges don’t ensure that students take precisely eight ounces that milk, they’ll be the end of compliance. Cash-strapped food solutions programs running on chop margins can not afford to lose that reimbursement.

U.S. Wait Force
NSLP guidelines identify five food types: milk, meat or different proteins, grains, fruit, and also vegetables. A reimbursable meal must incorporate at least three of those types, and must incorporate at least one offer of either fruit or vegetables. Milk is no required, however it should be available. And, if the is part of a reimbursable meal, it need to be an 8-ounce serving.

A USDA spokesperson writes: “The regulation … perform not mandate any specific form of packaging for milk offered as part of the reimbursable meal, nor execute they restrict the capability of institutions to usage milk dispensers. However, schools that usage dispensers space expected come take procedures to certain that youngsters receive the compelled 8 oz. Serving when selecting milk.”

That details is either too open to interpretation, or it isn’t typical knowledge for every little thing reason. Paul Flock, super of nutrition solutions for Olympia Public institutions in Washington state, hoped the his cafeterias could use stole cows, but wasn’t certain. He reasoned the Olympia’s school lunches fulfilled NSLP requirements through combinations of protein, grains, fruit and vegetables—effectively calculation milk optional. Still, the wasn’t certain that the state’s Office the Superintendent of public Instruction (OSPI) would share his views.

“I to be kinda difficult my neck out. Ns wasn’t sure,” states Flock in a call call. “We get a evaluation every three years. When they came out, lock looked at a school and also they saw this milk dispenser—they had actually never seen anything favor this before, for this reason they kinda to be scratching your heads.”

But, after ~ an audit, the OSPI at some point okayed the dispensers. Today, 11 Olympia schools have actually them.


Some institutions have carried out waste audits in order come gauge the influence of milk dispensers. Cartons room tallied together they’re thrown away and also leftover milk is measure up in intake buckets a) before a steel cow arrives, climate b) a couple of months after.

A 2016 estimate reflects that Olympia’s institutions equipped with dispensers removed a enormous 350-400,000 empty cartons from the rubbish stream, and prevented between eight and also ten thousands gallons that milk from gift poured out. Multiple other districts report the milk sales have actually gone increase while waste has actually dropped.

In Oregon, the Canby college District presented steel cows at 4 elementary institutions at the begin of the 2018-19 year. Follow to manager of nutrition solutions Galina Dobson, the an unified weekly liquid milk waste before installing steel cows was 280 quarts, identical to 1,120 cartons. Afterwards waste had actually fallen to 191 quarts, equivalent to 766 cartons.

A June 2014 report ready by Peter Guttchen, then through Thurston County’s department of Solid rubbish (which oversees Olympia), states that Olympia High School diminished their yearly waste collection prices by $1,970 by switching to dispensers. That exact same report estimates that Washington center School, likewise in Olympia, is saving $750 annually on their trash bill. Washington center is additionally estimated to be saving about $12 each month in electric costs, because they’ve found dispensers to it is in slightly much more efficient than milk coolers.

“When friend look in ~ the price of garbage disposal, recycling costs, can liners, energy costs, custodial labor costs, every one of those points drop,” says Guttchen, now with the Washington State room of Ecology.


Savings in trash and also electrical bills add up end time, but mass milk costs about the very same as milk in cartons. Follow to Hossein Akhtarkhavari, who is contracted to oversee food services operations for Columbia Valley and also the rest of the Evergreen publicly Schools, it actually costs about seven percent more because the milk sacks need to be to fill by hand.

Clackamas ar officials (where Canby is located) calculation that it costs a small over $4200 to pay for a dispenser, cups, dishwashing racks, and also everything else required to serve around four hundreds elementary college kids.

It would certainly take a lengthy time for the Canby district to recoup the price of their dispensers with milk sales. In ~ 23 cents per eight ounces, the price that one percent white milk is the same whether it comes in cartons or in mass sacks; cacao milk is 2 cents cheaper in bulk than cartons. Also with peripheral savings on trash and electricity, those savings won’t accumulate overnight.

Fortunately, in the Pacific Northwest, waste reduction grants have the right to be provided to purchase milk dispensers. Marion County, which includes the Oregon state capitol Salem, obtained over $76,000 native the Oregon department of ecological Quality. Both Olympia and also Clark County colleges purchased steel cows through grants native Washington’s room of Ecology.

“We’re looking at finding a way to increase the effort,” states Guttchen. “We’ve now made it clean to counties that making use of their waste reduction/recycling provide monies because that this type of initiative is something we support, and every one of those expenses are eligible.”


One confounding issue? mass milk isn’t obtainable everywhere. Bailey Payne, waste palliation coordinator because that Marion County, claims that few of his districts ran right into that worry with regional dairies that “won’t carry out what they’re questioning for in bags.” Portland administrators were warned lock would likewise have a hard time sourcing mass milk if they invested in stole cows. If friend can’t to fill the stole cows, they don’t do lot good.

Building style can be another problem. No every school has a cafeteria, and also not every cafeteria deserve to accommodate a steel cow. Whitney Ellersick, senior director that nutrition services for Portland windy Schools, states that Oregon calls for that every food is served prior to students are rung increase by a cashier, and not every cafeteria has actually room for brand-new equipment inside the offer area.

Clark county schools
Responding come parental attention in dispensers, Ellersick looked right into the possibility however the logistics appeared too tangled. She states her attention is focused on simply making sure that her students are getting fed.

Even institutions that have dispensers often rely top top cartons because that use external of the cafeteria. Olympia High institution operates two dispensers, yet only in ~ lunch. Students who buy breakfast or space on break obtain cartons and also take them ago to class. In Vancouver, Misfeldt won’t even contemplate stole cows at her high schools due to the fact that they’re open campuses. “Cups will end up in garbages,” she says. “They’ll just end up everywhere the campus if castle not also in the garbage. Climate you need to have someone who can go retrieve them and also bring them back.”

The perception that students cannot be trusted v cups of milk was common amongst sources i talked to, as are pertains to that staff will certainly not be able to handle the extra job-related of washing cups, clean up spills, or loading the dispensers. (Regarding the last item, Olympia’s milk provider agreed come short-fill bags in order to limit the load to forty pounds, and it’s recommended that dispensers be kept low come the soil to do adding brand-new sacks of milk easier.)

According to a 2016 report indigenous the state the Vermont, two colleges which experiment dispensers chose to revert earlier to milk cartons a) due to the fact that workers invested time filling cups to guarantee eight ounces to be served, b) due to the fact that of extra labor cleaning up spills, and c) because the price of mass milk was two cents an ext expensive per eight ounces. No institutions in the Pacific Northwest reported an uptick in pour out or extr labor costs, yet none the them allow students come take open up cups of milk outside of the cafeteria either.


Milk dispensers are making inroads, slowly yet surely, in various other parts that the country. Lock intrigue staff of the Los Angeles Unified college District, according to director of food services Manish Singh. Singh has spoken with the California department of education and learning (CDE) about whether milk dispensers can add to waste palliation in the country’s second largest district. The CDE is looking into the matter.

Ann Cooper, director of food services for the Boulder Valley school District in Colorado, worked with milk distributors to carry dispensers into all 52 of she schools. Cooper speak with brand-new Food economic climate over the phone native Napa, California, whereby that ar is planning its an initial dispenser pilot; she states that the surrounding city that Novato is act the same. Down in Texas, Anneliese Tanner, executive director the food solutions with the Austin Independent college District, writes the Austin is to plan a pilot of two schools in the autumn of 2019 and also three an ext the adhering to spring.

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As indigenous of effective milk dispenser pilots has spread, funding methods may be cultivation as well. Linda Mendoza that the Washington State dairy products Council is excited the students have actually taken to steel cows—and desires to check out them come to be lifelong milk drinkers. She’s secured accumulation for five or ten pilots i m sorry she hopes to roll out. The national Dairy the supervisory board is also exploring methods to support interested schools. They’ve developed a FAQ and plan come discuss mass milk in ~ the forthcoming institution Nutrition combination conference in July.

At day’s end, bulk milk dispensers have met barriers, but rarely perform they it seems ~ insurmountable. What operated at Columbia sink Elementary could not work for a college in Los Angeles, but that’s okay. Wherein there’s a will—and increasingly, there appears to be—there’s a way. It will take money and commitment and collaboration and, well, plain old difficult work. Eventually though, stole cows can one day be the new normal in institution districts throughout the country.