An Update on the First Year of Vermont Organic Milk for Vermont’s Schools

A little over a year ago, a Vermont organic dairy farmer and a local school nutrition director sat on a circle of milk crates at Miller Farm with NOFA-VT staff and a few farm-to-school partners. We worked through what it would take to transition three local schools from cartons of conventional milk to fresh, Vermont organic milk from a bulk dispenser. As we sipped sweet, cold Miller Farm milk in the welcome April sunshine, we also talked at length about why this project mattered—why Vermont organic milk for Vermont schools? And why now?

In recent years, a perfect storm of factors coalesced to put tremendous downward price pressure on organic dairies in the Northeast, forcing over half of Vermont’s organic dairy farms to close in the past eight years alone. These factors include skyrocketing costs of production, corporate consolidation, and economies of scale that render Northeast dairies less competitive than their megafarm counterparts out west. One thing is clear: if we want the dairies that dot our hillsides to stick around for the next hundred years, especially ones that are certified organic, we’ll need creative solutions. Our team at NOFA-VT is working on this urgent, critical issue from multiple angles: providing technical assistance to struggling farms, advocating for policy reform at the state and federal levels, securing $6.9 million in emergency relief funding for Vermont organic dairy farms last year, ensuring organic regulatory integrity, raising consumer awareness, and developing a broader market for Vermont organic dairy.

This is a story from NOFA-VT’s wholesale markets team, which is working diligently on that last point: the development of a broader market for Vermont organic dairy. The goal is to support the state’s colleges and universities, health care centers, and K-12 school districts—significant dairy buyers across the state—in transitioning from conventional dairy to Vermont organic dairy products. The NOFA-VT wholesale markets team is equally driven to expand access to healthy, fresh, local, and organic food. Unlike in homes, where access to local, organic food is often stratified by a household’s income, in a public cafeteria, we all eat the same thing. This presents a powerful opportunity that we can use to ensure that more Vermont children grow up eating, learning about, and valuing the healthy, delicious food grown by their neighbors.


NOFA-VT staff members involved in the Miller Farm School Milk Pilot project are pictured with farmer Peter Miller, Olga Moriarty, Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership Executive Director, and Harley Sterling, Director of School Nutrition for Windham Northeast Supervisory Union.
NOFA-VT staff members involved in the Miller Farm School Milk Pilot project are pictured with farmer Peter Miller, Olga Moriarty, Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership Executive Director, and Harley Sterling, Director of School Nutrition for Windham Northeast Supervisory Union.



So, in the weeks that followed that sunny April afternoon, our team of partners—NOFA-VT, Miller Farm, Windham Northeast Supervisory Union (WNESU), the Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership (NOFFP), and Farm to Institution New England (FINE)—were off to the races. Pete Miller of Miller Farm and Harley Sterling, Director of School Nutrition for WNESU, identified a price point that would work for both the farm and the schools. The team secured funding from USDA’s Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center to expand Miller Farm’s milk processing facilities and ensured the milk met the National School Lunch Program’s requirements.

A young student gives an enthusiastic thumbs up to the new Miller Farm local, organic milk dispenser in the school cafeteria

Sterling debuted bulk Miller Farm milk in three cafeterias on the first day of school in August 2023. The reception from students, teachers, and administrators was overwhelmingly positive, and, by the end of the month, Sterling had expanded this exciting new milk service to all six schools in WNESU, transitioning the entire supervisory union to Vermont organic milk.

 “To say the students were excited is an understatement.” Sterling wrote, upon introducing Miller Farm milk to Grafton Elementary School, “One kid shouted, ‘This tastes like real milk!’ And another said,  ‘You should bring this every day.’ When I told them that's exactly what we're going to do they exclaimed,  ‘I LOVE THIS LUNCHROOM NOW!!!’”

As word spread and schools farther afield began to express interest, Food Connects and Upper Valley Produce, who both distribute Vermont food across the state, jumped in supportively and now deliver Miller Farm milk from its origin in Vernon farther north up to Addison County and the Upper Valley. This support was welcome, as the pilot had quickly ballooned from those initial three schools to a total of twelve participating schools.

Our NOFA-VT wholesale markets team organized a celebratory on-farm field trip in the fall to foster a direct connection between the 200 WNESU elementary students, and the people and place their milk comes from. The team also facilitated the introduction of Dairy in the Classroom, a program that educates students about Vermont dairy to ensure these connections endure. The program is now offered at WNESU by Food Connects’ farm-to-school staff.


WNESU Students posing with Farmer Peter Miller and his tractor during a field trip to Miller Farm to celebrate the milk pilot project's success
WNESU Students posing with Farmer Peter Miller and Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets Anson Tebbetts during a field trip to Miller Farm to celebrate the school milk pilot project's success



Step by step, this Vermont organic school milk project grew and improved, clearing a path for others to follow. We at NOFA-VT are deeply grateful to all involved, especially Miller and Sterling, who were willing to be the trailblazers of this impactful effort. Thanks to their pioneering spirit, we now have a paradigm-shifting new option for all Vermont schools that we hope will hold promise for other institutions as well.

With lunchroom-ready Vermont organic milk now on the market, the question of cost is likely on the minds of Vermont’s K-12 buyers, as Miller Farm’s bulk milk sits at nearly twice the cost of conventional cartons. Sterling crunched the numbers after a year of Miller Milk in WNESU schools. He explains that the transition has proven to be cost-neutral due to the significant reduction in waste and associated cost savings, emphasizing that “the waste reduction has been profound.” With bulk dispenser milk service, students have become more mindful of their consumption, resulting in minimal milk and packaging waste compared to the previous carton-based system. Sterling estimates that WNESU will save money this year on milk despite the upgrade to this local organic product.

Teens raise a glass of local, organic milk in celebration of the new Miller Farm milk dispenser in their cafeteria

The wholesale markets team hopes this pilot will encourage more Vermont organic dairies and schools to build upon this program’s success. Farmer Pete Miller invites other Vermont organic processors to sell to local districts, noting, “We feel it is critical to raise a generation who knows where their food comes from and that they as consumers will eventually vote with their purchasing power to enact the changes they want to see in this world…This model of local, small processor to school could be replicated across the nation.” Sterling underscores, “We want to help pave the way for connecting local dairies with local schools, as they represent the largest institutional buyer of milk in most towns in Vermont. Some of the best food on earth comes from Vermont and we want to see it help nourish our communities, or as we like to say, 'Vermont food for Vermont kids’.”

Want to learn more? Contact Wholesale Markets Program Director Lauren Griswold

Participating schools: Bellows Fall Union High School, Bellows Falls Middle School, Rockingham Central Elementary, Saxtons River Elementary, Westminster Central, Grafton Elementary, Vernon Elementary, The Prosper Valley School, Woodstock Union High School and Middle School, Woodstock Elementary, Leland and Gray Middle and High School, and Mt. Abraham Union High School.

Project partners: The USDA Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, Miller Farm, Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership, Farm to Institution New England, New England Dairy, Food Connects, Upper Valley Produce.