Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Milk carton shortage leaves Pennsylvania schools scrambling for solutions

In this file photo, cafeteria manager Carol Avalos sorts individual milk cartons at the Belmont Senior High cafeteria in Los Angeles.
Damian Dovarganes
Associated Press
In this file photo, cafeteria manager Carol Avalos sorts individual milk cartons at the Belmont Senior High cafeteria in Los Angeles. School cafeterias in Pennsylvania and nationally are feeling the impact of a shortage of the cartons used to package milk.

Got milk? How about milk cartons?

A major shortage of cartons is hitting the dairy industry, including in Pennsylvania, which means fewer cartons of milk for schools and their students.

“I've never imagined this would be a problem," said Megan Schaper, food service director for the State College Area School District. "You know, we just really have come through working through the pandemic where we had to reimagine and rebuild our programs from the ground up, but the one thing I never had a problem getting was milk.”

Schaper recently got a phone call letting her know the district is slated to get 60% of the milk they were getting before. The issue is not a lack of milk — it’s the small paper cartons school milk comes in.

“This is unprecedented in the industry," said Julia Galliker, executive vice president at Galliker Dairy Company, headquartered in Johnstown.

Galliker said the carton shortage is affecting about 500 of their institutional customers including schools, hospitals, correctional facilities and some commercial operations in four states: Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. She said they also deliver lactose free milk to a distributor who distributes it on the East coast.

According to the company, the shortage affects dairy processors across the country, especially in the East and Midwest regions.

“In recent years, there's been a lot of industry consolidation," Galliker said. "So that there are just a few, very few suppliers. The major supplier for North America has made some business decisions including plant closures that have limited their ability to produce, and kind of resulted in the nationwide carton shortage.”

Galliker said they’re working with other companies and looking for solutions, like having the supplier make generic milk cartons.

“Cows don't turn on and off very easily and quickly," she said. "And so we're faced with the dilemma of plenty of milk and plenty of product and plenty of capacity to produce the product if we have the cartons.”

An image from Galliker's, one of the companies being impacted by a national paper carton shortage.
Courtney Seidel
An image from Galliker's, one of the companies being impacted by a national paper carton shortage.

Despite the efforts, Galliker said they do not know how long the carton shortage could continue, and the 60% supply could be “aspirational.”

“There's no guarantee. And there's no guarantee of timely delivery," she said. "Call it a response that was the best information they could provide us at the time. But we're not seeing deliveries as we had expected. And some of the deliveries we expected, we've been told they'll be delayed.”

She said food service managers and other customers have been understanding.

"And we've been in contact with them and communicating regularly about finding ways to meet their needs," she said.

In State College, Schaper said they’re directing the milk cartons to elementary schools for students who buy meals. In the middle schools and high school, they’ll set up milk stations with milk jugs, and students who buy meals will get cups to pour their milk into.

“I've warned the custodians and they're all like, ‘Oh, we're going to put mats underneath the tables.’ And I’m like, 'Oh, that's a good idea.' I mean, we're still working through it, and we’re going to have to adjust, I’m sure, as we find things that work and don’t work.”

Schaper’s confident they’ll be able to work through it.

“You know, we've all been through some pretty rough times over the last couple of years, so this is just a small blip and it is going to be fine and we're going to make sure kids have access to milk. It's just going to look a little different and in my experience, students are pretty flexible," she said. "They will go with the flow and are not thrown off too much by changes like this, so I think it's going to be fine."

In Pennsylvania, Galliker’s reductions started Friday, to be followed by customers elsewhere Monday.

Anne Danahy has been a reporter at WPSU since fall 2017. Before crossing over to radio, she was a reporter at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, and she worked in communications at Penn State. She is married with cats.