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HARRISONBURG — Dairy, especially milk, plays a large role in school lunches — the trick is getting kids to drink it.

“The challenge is always getting kids to select healthy meals,” said Andrea Early, the executive director of school nutrition for Harrisonburg City Public Schools.

Early and Eric Paulson, the executive secretary and treasurer of the Virginia Dairymen, sat down to discuss the relationship between dairy and affordable, healthy school lunches in the first episode of the new Daily News-Record podcast series, “The Bottom Line.”

The dairy industry has had a rough past couple years, said Paulson, who is in his 10th year with the Virginia Dairymen.

“We are active in anything that involves dairy and school lunches,” he said. “For kids, its their first real exposure to dairy products in school lunches.”

Milk is a required component for school meals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the market for dairy is larger than the schoolhouse.

Virginia has lost 20% of its dairies since the beginning of 2017, Paulson said.

“That’s simply unsustainable,” he said.

Changes in interstate and international trade and weather are some contributing factors to the decline in dairies, according to Paulson.

Students at Bluestone Elementary were determined to reduce waste at their school, and they realized they were throwing away many milk cartons.

“It’s not nutrition if it ends up in the garbage,” Early said.

This led to the introduction of milk dispensers, which was not a new concept.

The students have a choice of white milk or chocolate milk Early said, and they often will mix the two.

“You can have the white milk versus chocolate milk argument all day long and I will always stand on the side of if you need to add a little sugar for kids to get these eight essential nutrients, I’m OK with that,” she said.

The machine can also keep milk colder than cartons, which tastes better, Early and Paulson agreed.

“Those extra couple degrees really do make a difference,” Early said.

The Dairy Alliance, a dairy advocate group, is trying to build on the success that can be seen with the milk dispenser at Bluestone by building a grant to try and help other schools incorporate them into food service to students, Paulson said.

Grant funds through the Dairy Alliance have helped schools with startup costs for including healthy dairy products in schools, Early said.

And Virginia dairy is also moving from being a fluid state to a variety of products, including cheeses and ice creams, which make the industry stronger in the state, Paulson said.

“There’s no wrong way to eat dairy products,” he said.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanMunroDNR

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