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Why Can’t I Buy Milk?

I headed to the grocery store for my weekly shopping trip and what I thought would be a quick stop took longer than expected.

I usually buy 5 gallons of milk every week for my family of five, and that sometimes doesn’t stretch to the next week. As I put the third gallon in my cart, I noticed the sign on the milk case:

“So we may serve as many customers as possible, please limit your purchase to 2.”

Back in the cooler went that third gallon. Honestly, I thought about trying to buy three, but I didn’t want to be that person who thinks the rules don’t apply. But I have to admit I was frustrated because there was plenty of milk on the shelves. The second grocery store also limited me to 2 gallons, but the next one had no limit. Three grocery stores later, I had our family’s weekly milk needs met.

This made me scratch my head more when I got home and started reading about dairy farmers having to dump milk. Why was my grocery limiting how much milk I could buy when dairy farmers were having to dump milk into retention ponds for recycling? I started calling people I knew in the dairy industry to learn more.

Each retailer makes its own decision about limiting purchases of milk and other items (cheese, eggs, paper towels, and toilet paper purchases were also limited). Most made the decision to limit amounts when the stores were being stormed by people stockpiling food and other items before shelter-in-place orders were put in place. Now that this has eased off, many are stepping back from those limits, but it’s still a store-by-store choice. One of the stores I went to this morning is a chain. My store was limiting me. Someone in the western part of North Carolina went to the same chain today and that store had lifted the limits on milk. 

So why are dairies having to dump milk? Actual dairy farmers like Dairy Carrie can explain it better than I can, but here’s what I learned talking to retailers and dairy industry folks in my state. Milk processors are set up to bottle milk a certain way. A few years ago I visited a milk processor. The facility bottles milk for retailers, so the milk is put into ½-gallon and 1-gallon jugs. The process for doing this is complex and involves a lot of equipment. If the demand for milk at grocery stores dries up, the processor can’t just switch the line from filling gallon jugs to ½-pint cartons for schools. That takes time and money. 

With restaurants closing or cutting back to delivery only, their demand for milk and other dairy products like butter and cheese has dwindled. The milk that was destined for cheese on our pizza or butter for a biscuit now doesn't have a home. Becasue it's perishable, milk can't just sit in refrigerated tankers until restaurants open back up or another use is found. But the cows don’t stop making milk, so dairy farmers are still milking cows two or three times each day.

So why can’t processors who bottle for retail just bottle more? The milk processor in my state has been able to meet order requests but is operating at capacity so it can’t accept any more milk. The plant is designed to process (pasteurize and bottle) a certain amount of milk. It can’t speed up the process. This article mentions Maple View Dairy, which bottles its own milk, highlights another part of this equation – the shortage of milk jugs and labels. The dairy is asking its customers to recycle the glass bottles because the dairy is running out.   

Transportation is another part of this story. Milk usually gets from the farm to the store shelf within 48 hours. Truck drivers and refrigerated trucks make that happen. Our Commissioner of Agriculture sent retailers a letter yesterday offering assistance if they needed transportation getting milk to their store. That same letter also emphasized purchase limits weren’t necessary. 

It would easy to blame the retailers. I talked to one retailer, and its stores are working seven days a week trying to keep shelves stocked. Some have more trucks delivering product than they have employees to stock. This sudden demand wasn’t something stores could plan for, and they have been playing catch-up ever since.

It’s not just dairy that is being dumped. Produce in Florida is going to waste because the restaurant industry essentially shut down. Even in my state, I have talked to farmers who are usually selling strawberries to schools right now, but they aren’t buying this year. Efforts are being made to increase access, distributing food instead of wasting it.  

The big lesson for me is how interconnected agriculture and the entire food system is. When you have one part of that connection affected, the ripple effect can be seen for acres. 

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