Got Milk? Increasingly, the Answer Is No

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According to recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, U.S. milk sales came to about 6 billion gallons last year. Sounds like a lot, but it’s actually the lowest total since 1984. Why are we drinking less milk?

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently ran a story trying to get to the heart of why American consumers have turned sour on milk. The reasons are many, including the rise in popularity of other beverages ranging from sports drinks to soda to bottled tea—and especially bottled water. Other studies indicate that consumption of milk has fallen, understandably enough, when the economy falters and milk prices spike, as they did in 2007 and 2008. Correspondingly, there was a noticeable surge in sales in 2009, when milk prices dropped.

But overall, the decades-long trend has been a steady decline in drinking milk. One reason is that on-the-go Americans are less and less likely to be eating breakfast at home — and as the Journal Sentinel explains: “Americans still drink more milk at the breakfast table than during any other time.” As for commuters swinging through the drive-thru on their way to work, it’s exceptionally unlikely they’ll be ordering a bottle of whole milk to swig during the course of their ride. Employees munching breakfast at the cubicles are probably skipping milk too; you don’t want to risk spilling milk on your desk and keyboard.

That’s why the dairy industry is pushing a strong “breakfast-at-home” initiative. “It’s our territory that we have to defend,” [CEO of the Milk Processor Education Program Vivien] Godfrey said. “Breakfast at home accounts for the highest portion of milk consumption, by far, of any meal occasion. So we are going to ‘fish where the fishes are.'”

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Many kids have access to milk at school, of course, but students have also been shying away from milk due to simple preference, as well as the perception that milk is fatty and high in calories. This is especially the case when it comes to whole milk and “flavored milk,” which in most cases means chocolate milk. Many schools have banned sales of flavored milk—notably, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver led a campaign last year to stop sales of chocolate and strawberry milk in Los Angeles schools—and while the changes may help curb childhood obesity, they also appear to be decreasing the overall amount of milk that kids drink. One study in Colorado found that schools that “do not offer flavored milk, especially chocolate, see much lower overall milk usage when the elimination occurs.” In school cafeterias with the ban in effect, milk sales declined between 30% and 76%.

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In addition to years of “Got Milk?” ads, the dairy industry has taken many steps to try to boost milk sales. Some of the strategies may seem odd, perhaps even a bit desperate. One recent idea is the marketing of chocolate milk as a sports recovery drink—an alternative to Gatorade, Powerade, and such. The protein, carbohydrates, sugar, and sodium in chocolate milk may be good for helping muscles to recover, but the concept is a tough sell: When you’re sweaty and parched and out of breath, is milk anywhere in the top ten cold beverages you crave?

Interestingly enough, a once-favorite complement to a tall glass of milk has also seen sales plummet over the years. The Boston Globe reports that sliced white bread—for decades, a classic when paired with peanut butter, jelly, and a glass of moo juice on the side—has been surpassed in sales by wheat bread at least since 2006. Consumers have turned away from white bread because wheat and multigrain breads are considered healthier and, often, tastier.

Tiffany Faison, who runs a Southern barbecue restaurant in Boston called Sweet Cheeks Q, where white bread is still served with most dishes, told the Globe that white bread has become something of a guilty pleasure:

“Talking about eating white bread is like a dirty word, like saying you drink soda,” she says.

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Or perhaps a bit like saying you give your kid chocolate milk every day.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.