NEW YORK – Many graduates of American schools have sour memories of school milk, and most students wouldn't imagine replacing their usual ice-cold Coke or sports drink with a glass of the plain, hopelessly unhip beverage.
But the presence of soda in schools has been increasingly criticized as parents, educators and politicians look for a quick answer to the question of childhood obesity.
And while some have worked hard to ban school soda sales, others are doing their best to make milk more appealing to students: "Vendi-Milk," the milk vending machine, is their answer.
"Teenagers like new and different and exciting," said Pat Rheel, director of milk marketing for the National Dairy Council.
The Got Milk? mustache campaign, which aims to heighten milk’s coolness factor, features teen idols like tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, MTV’s Carson Daly and pop star Britney Spears.
Now, those famous mustaches can be seen on the sides of milk vending machines, a new attempt by the industry to get young people to drink their dairy.
The vending machines, which cost about $4,000 each, are decorated with black and white cow prints and have special temperature controls to keep the product cold and fresh.
If the machine’s temperature exceeds 45 degrees for a specified period of time, it will automatically stop vending, according to Mark Serling, director of marketing for Upstate Farms Cooperative in western New York state.
Upstate Farms’ dairy products, which include such teen-friendly flavors as Intense Chocolate, Intense Strawberry, Intense Vanilla and Mocha Java, as well as lower fat varieties of white milk, are being vended in glass-case machines in 70 schools in the state.
Vending machines are "a great way to get kids to become lifelong consumers of milk," Serling said.
In order to make the packaging more attractive to teens, Rheel said, "we took away the half-pint paper and replaced it with a pint-sized plastic container."
Eric Kazlauskas, a senior at Westfield High School in Chantilly, Va., chugs a bottle of chocolate milk "when I have a couple of extra dollars," and he purchases the drink from the cafeteria’s milk vending machine.
The machine "just sort of popped up one day in the fall," Kazlauskas said. "A lot of people like the cookies and cream and strawberry flavors."
Asked if his school’s machine has lower-calorie, regular milk flavors, the 17-year-old football player said, "I think they have the low-fat stuff."
Stephanie Smith, a registered dietician with the National Dairy Council, said milk consumption among adolescents has decreased by 36 percent since 1965.
Nearly 90 percent of teenage girls and 70 percent of teenage boys fall short of the recommended daily amount of calcium from the National Academy of Sciences, 1,300 milligrams or four, 8-ounce glasses of milk, Smith said.
But the kid-pleasing, whole-milk drinks also have detractors.
Although whole and 2 percent milk are leading sources of total and saturated fat in children’s diets, two out of three children who drink milk with school lunch choose it over lower-fat varieties, according to The Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The nonprofit group, which seeks to educate the public about nutrition, provides a kit for schools on how to market 1 percent or fat-free milk to students.
And the flavored, higher fat milk drinks do little more than soft drinks in the fight against childhood obesity, said Amy Lanou, the nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes preventive medicine and alternatives to animal use in medical education and research.
"Those flavored drinks have as much sugar in them as soda," Lanou said. "Our preference is beverages that don’t contain saturated fats, like water, flavored bubbly water, juices and soy milk," Lanou said. "We would be looking for beverages that contain nutrients, are not full of sugar and are not full of saturated fat."
Lanou’s organization, which promotes vegetarian diets, recommends foods such as tofu, vegetables like kale and broccoli, legumes and calcium-fortified juices as alternative sources.
Another problem is profitability.
Serling of Upstate Farms acknowledges that the profit margin for schools is much smaller for milk than for what he calls "sugar-water products" like sodas.
Tens of millions of dollars are earned by schools to purchase athletic equipment, computers and art materials from the sale of soft drinks and sports drinks like Gatorade, according to the National Soft Drink Association.
While soft drink vending machines are owned, operated and maintained by local bottling companies, schools are usually responsible for the costs of purchasing the milk vending machines through tax money, state grants or donations from the local dairy community.
Still, as of December, milk vending machines had spread to 120 schools in 23 counties in New York state, according to the office of Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who launched a statewide "Vendi-Milk" campaign last March.
And in Iowa, the Midwest Dairy Association and Dairy Management Inc. partnered with Davenport-based Swiss Valley Farms to place vending machines in local schools that sell cheese and yogurt in addition to milk.
Rheel of the Dairy Council said her industry has a lot of catching up to do in the teen beverage wars. Schools are just the beginning.
"We have to get milk where these teenagers are, such as malls and movie theaters."