No crying over this spilt milk

School milk is back on the agenda thanks to a Fonterra initiative first trialled in Northland.
School milk is back on the agenda thanks to a Fonterra initiative first trialled in Northland.

Drink up!

Last week's announcement by Fonterra to extend its milk-in-primary-schools programme nationwide has been greeted with almost unanimous acclamation.

For me, the announcement brought back memories almost as warm as the milk that I used to drink at school, courtesy of Keith Holyoake's, National Government, way back in the mid-1960s.

Every morning, schoolwork would grind to a halt when the milk arrived in clean, half-pint glass bottles. Delivering the milk on a wagon to each classroom was a great privilege for a 6-year-old, though on hot sunny days you had to be quick. Leave the milk in the sun for too long and you would be running back with sawdust for the inevitable vomiting that ensued.

Forget coasters, the bottles were placed on little squares of newspaper which we could read while drinking our milk through a straw. In the one-size-fits-all 1960s, you could only buy blue-stripe- topped homogenised or silver- topped pasteurised milk.

Our school milk was like the country's population at the time - homogenised - which was fine by us, because there was no ring of cream at the top that you got with pasteurised.

Eventually the government decided that most children were getting enough nutrition at home and the scheme was abolished. After all, the economy was booming and if you were hungry, a pint of milk only cost 4 cents a pint - a quarter of the cost of a fizzy drink.

But what the governments of the 1960s would not have predicted is that the oil shock, Rogernomics and Ruthanasia would eventually produce a generation of hungry children. When I was a kid, child poverty meant Corso clothing bins and milk biscuits for Bangladesh.

So how appropriate for these neo-liberal times that a corporation, admittedly one co-operatively owned by farmers, has stepped in to provide a service that our hands-off government sees as unnecessary.

Unlike the previous state scheme, Fonterra's one is voluntary. In our highly pasteurised school system, I hope our creamy high-decile schools jump on board so any stigma associated with the scheme is removed. Drinking milk is a great habit for kids to get into, even if your parents are wealthy. And high-decile schools can still have poor and hungry students. But I do feel sorry for teachers at high- decile schools who join the scheme. While I suspect that low- decile kids will gratefully slurp away, teachers at high-decile schools may be inundated by notes from hot-housing parents insisting on Calci-trim not Lite for their kids. Other parental epistles may forbid milk to pass the lips of their gifted yet lactose-intolerant darlings.

Then there'll be the shrill protests from some of the high-decile kids themselves, who loudly claim that any milk they consume must come in the form of a fluffy.

Even if, like me, you think it's the Government's job to provide undernourished kids with food, this scheme, and Fonterra, must be applauded. It's also very business savvy. Get kids drinking milk in their early years and you may capture them for life. Nevertheless, we should remain vigilant. As the Government increasingly opens up its schools to corporate sponsorship, hamburger, soft drink and confectionary companies may be rubbing their hands in anticipation at this window of corporate opportunity.

What is also laudable about this scheme is how Fonterra have implemented it. They started a small pilot in Northland, an area of high need. During this time, they closely monitored progress and made a number of improvements as a result of feedback, such as changing the size of milk containers and installing small fridges in schools.

With a successful pilot behind them, Fonterra are now going nationwide.

Perhaps Hekia Parata needs to put on some white gumboots and visit Fonterra's massive South Taranaki dairy factory. She could ask the workers if they would fancy getting involved in paying teachers properly.

The Government may like to reflect that it's possible for large organisations to be co-operative, consultative, and community- minded, while maintaining a healthy, profit-rich, bottom line.

The Dominion Post