In schools across the country, milk is replacing sodas, and nowhere is it more popular than in America's Dairyland.
Two-thirds of Wisconsin's high schools have milk vending machines. That's a higher percentage than anywhere else in the country, said Laura Wilford, director of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's state Dairy Council. The state has 365 milk vending machines in high schools; elementary schools generally don't have vending machines.
The milk from modern machines is a far cry from the boring cartons of yesterday. Besides chocolate, there's strawberry, cookies and cream, and vanilla cream available in colorful, opaque plastic bottles, and most of it is lowfat, Wilford said.
"Some of the machines at this time of the year offer a nonalcoholic eggnog flavor, and it is a big seller," she said.
Nationwide, there are 7,000 to 7,500 machines dispensing milk in schools, and most of those have been installed in the past three or four years, said Julia Kadison of the Beverage Marketing Corp., an industry consultant. It's largely an effort to push kids toward healthier food and drink.
"School lunches do not give us enough milk," Travis Brown, 16, a junior at Delavan-Darien High School, said as he supplemented the half-pint of milk he got with his cafeteria food with a pint from a vending machine.
As a moneymaking project, Future Farmers of America clubs operate about half the vending machines in Wisconsin schools. School food services operate 40 percent, Wilford said.
The FFA in this small town about 45 miles southwest of Milwaukee won $500 in a marketing board contest last spring for increased sales.
Matt Venema, 17, another junior at Delavan-Darien, buys milk from the vending machine because "it's healthy and it tastes good."
In a state that claims milk as its state beverage and the dairy cow as its domesticated animal, dairy producers quickly got behind the effort to bring milk machines to schools. The Wisconsin milk board pays $100 to schools that install milk vending machines, Wilford said.
Wilford, a nutritionist, pointed out that milk provides calcium, potassium, vitamins A and D and protein, "compared with the empty calories, sugar and caffeine in soda."
Research presented at a medical meeting earlier this year suggested that adolescents who had just two servings of dairy food a day seemed to have less of a weight problem than kids who ate less dairy. Some doctors also say an often overlooked problem in teens is vitamin D deficiency, which can lead to weakened bones and stunted growth.
The increase in milk vending machines follows a surge of soft drink machines into the schools for a decade or so. Now, even though the sale of soft drinks in school cafeterias is banned during lunch hour, a fizzy drink can often be found just a step or two outside.
During a recent lunch break, almost every student in the Delavan-Darien's cafeteria was drinking milk, from the school lunch program, the vending machine or both.
Soft drink makers still have about 65,000 vending machines in American schools, Kadison said, with more of the space taken up lately by water, fruit drinks and other beverages.
Kathleen Dezio, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, noted that soft drink makers also produce sugar-free diet sodas as well as water, juices and other drinks schools sell. She said banning soda isn't the answer.
"People want variety in every area of their lives," said Dezio, whose trade group doesn't represent the milk industry. "Restricting access in one environment is not going to teach children good lifelong eating habits."