Imagine waking up at 2:30 a.m. and working 14-hours each weekday, only to lose $30,000 a year. Picture schoolchildren throwing away cartons of protein- and calcium-rich milk, and drinking soda instead. Tessa Edick, for one, is sick of both scenarios. Ms. Edick endeavored to link these two seemingly disparate situations together and eliminate both problems in one fell swoop. The founder of both Culinary Partnership (a company specializing in launching food products for celebrity chefs like Tom Colicchio and Whole Foods) and also the Hudson Valley’s Farm On! Foundation (a non-profit founded in 2011 to educate students about careers in the local food system, which raises money, in part, by hosting a summer local foods festival in Copake Lake), she had the knowledge and basic resources to embark on her mission. Dr. Sam Simon, a farmer and president of Hudson Valley Fresh (HVF) — an agricultural co-op composed of nine farms located within 20 miles of each other — agreed to team up with Ms. Edick and use an innovative approach to introduce HVF milk into the Taconic Hills school system, with the goal of launching similar initiatives in other schools in the region soon. (Her ultimate goal is to go national with the program, but Ms. Edick says that the process of getting approval school-by-school will likely be slow.)
“Kids aren’t stupid,” Ms. Edick says. “They’re throwing away the milk they get in school lunches because it sucks. It’s old, stale milk shipped from across the country and it tastes awful. Schools are required to accept the lowest bid from vendors so the milk they get is from a pooled source that has been stored in tanks and spent weeks in transit. We pasteurize the hell out of milk in this country, so it’s safe, but it doesn’t taste like fresh grassy milk anymore.”
Children respond as most intelligent beings do when faced with an obvious choice: ditch the gross stuff and instead grab something delicious (like cream-filled, deep-fried snack cakes).
“Gee, I wonder why we’re struggling with obesity in this country?” Ms. Edick asks rhetorically. “If [children] consume food with little-to-no nutrition in it, of course they’re going to be hungry all the time. It creates a cycle of hunger and junk-food craving. So I decided to use some of the dirty tricks big food companies use on kids myself in a bid to get them to consume healthier, better food [and] get ‘em hooked, early.” The premise is simple: kids will choose fresh, nutritious milk that will keep them full and fueled for learning over empty junk. It just has to taste good. “That, in turn, creates another, virtuous cycle,” Ms. Edick says. “They’ll go home and request the particular milk they tried and loved at school, and parents will buy it for them.” The process of getting Hudson Valley-farmed milk into Hudson Valley schools involved many bureaucratic hoops to jump through. First, Ms. Edick had to get local schools on board. “It seems obvious, right? Hudson Valley milk in Hudson Valley schools. But it doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Luckily, because I’m an entrepreneur who is used to working outside of systems and seeing them from afar, I was able to help the insiders see how to game the system.” Auspiciously, Neil Howard, superintendent of schools for the Taconic Hills Central School District was already on a mission himself to place more nutritious food options into kids’ bellies. Ms. Edick, Mr. Howard and Dr. Simon teamed up to basically create a new mandate that would supersede the directive every school faces in taking the lowest-bidding beverage vendor. “Our superintendent came up with a clever plan that established that the milk that was more nutritious would be introduced in school, in practice out-mandating the cost mandate with a mandate for superior nutrition,” Ms. Edick explained. The somatic cell count in milk is an indicator of quality; essentially, more somatic cells mean more potentially illness-causing bacteria. The federal government’s legal limit on bulk milk is 750,000 somatic cells per milliliter — Hudson Valley Fresh’s milk ranges from a mere 45,000-160,000 cells per milliliter per farm, which is unheard of in the industry in a good way. According to the USDA, the average number of somatic cells in American milk in 2012 was 200,000 cells per milliliter; which amounts to roughly 757,082,000 cells in each gallon of milk. Hudson Valley Fresh’s cows are fed mostly hay, which produces more Omega-3s in the milk, essential for normal human growth and brain function, especially in younger children. Hudson Valley Fresh’s milk never has hormones or antibiotics.
Even after acquiring the school board’s approval, Ms. Edick still had to get the initiative funded. In order to meet the schools’ budget requirements, Hudson Valley Fresh currently sells its milk at a reduced price, with Ms. Edick’s Farm On! Foundation supplementing the balance. There was a lot of red tape involved, but the program was approved for 2013-2014 academic year. The response to the pilot milk program, was inaugurated this September at the Taconic Hills School, a Kindergarten through 12th grade school that serves roughly 1,600 students in 13 towns in Columbia County. The outcome has exceeded Ms. Edick’s wildest dreams. “We are only one month into the program and the kids’ milk consumption has gone up astronomically according to the staff and students,” Ms. Edick said in October. “The milk they get comes in within 48 hours after the cows are milked. Hudson Valley Fresh consistently wins awards as the number one milk in the country, but no one knows because they don’t have gigantic ad companies behind them. “The response has been incredible,” Ms. Edick continues. “The kids love it, the parents love it. They’re not eating as much junk and our local farmers are getting paid directly for the milk. Win-win-win.” Hard numbers on actual milk consumption and Hudson Valley Fresh’s actual profit won’t be available until the end of the academic year, but the farmers are able to eke out a profit thanks to the five cents with which Farm On! is supplementing the program — and everyone’s happy to see their neighbor’s products being consumed at the local schools. So what’s next? “This is the right thing to do,” Ms. Edick says. “Not only because kids deserve to eat healthy, nutritious food, but because farmers deserve to make a living doing what they do. And when they can afford to paint their house, it helps me too, because I’m their neighbor. Once people see it in place in their community, they get it. The plan is to roll this out across the state, and eventually, the country.” Farm On! is keeping its cards close to its chest for now and won’t name names in fear of ruining tentative deals, but Ms. Edick does say that she is talking to “a number of school boards and farmers in Hudson Valley communities.” In a few years, she would like to approach dairy producers and their neighboring schools across New York and the U.S., too. “We’ve gotta make it easy for everyone involved,” she says. “Which, as we know, is kind of tough. But we’ll do it!”