Jersey cows look up from their feed at the Ballard Dairy in Gooding, Idaho.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the landscape in the dairy industry and beyond, and the Dairy Checkoff has responded.

“International, national and local dairy promotion groups as we went into COVID-19 have ... changed our plan to meet the immediate need,” Tom Gallagher, CEO of Dairy Management Inc., said in a conference call with reporters.

The first priority is to get food in the hands of people to increase sales and help people who are hungry. The second priority is to build trust, he said.

“A lot of our efforts and money have been diverted to these important things,” he said.

The things that could change did, and the things that needed to be maintained have continued — such as funding research into the value of milk fat and dairy foods’ positive effects on diabetes, he said.

DMI has shifted its focus and reprioritized to navigate the environment and is working with industry to best re-coordinate distribution of product, said Barb O’Brien, DMI president.

Staff members are doing everything they can to assess challenges and working with schools as they develop emergency services to feed students, she said.

DMI’s school nutrition team is coordinating with USDA and others to make sure schools understand the rules around distribution. DMI has also donated thousands of coolers to school feeding programs to help keep milk cold, she said.

Checkoff staffers are also working with Feeding America to quantify demand at local food banks and pantries, coordinating milk donations from dairy cooperatives, placing refrigerated trucks at food pantries and working with processors to redirect dairy products to food pantries, she said.

They are connecting with major retailers to remove signage limiting purchases at grocery stores and making sure they are well stocked.

They are also working with foodservice chains on promotions and value programs and working with pizza chains to increase the amount of cheese used on pizza.

On the trust side, DMI is reprioritizing communications to send the message that dairy farmers are essential and tirelessly working to provide a safe and consistent supply of milk. Connecting consumers and dairy farmers will be critical in the next phase of the pandemic, she said.

DMI’s GENYOUth, a nonprofit organization created by dairy farmers to build healthier school communities, is stepping up its efforts to get additional funding and resources to schools to keep feeding kids, said Alexis Glick, GENYOUth CEO.

“Distribution of those meals is mission-critical,” she said.

At the end of March, the organization launched “For Schools’ Sake — Help Us Feed Our Nation’s Kids!” to provide grants of up to $3,000 per school. So far, it has provided grants to 6,000 schools and hopes to award 250 to 500 more each week, she said.

On average, those schools feed 700 people two meals each weekday, and GENYOUth is supporting 50 million meals per week, she said.

“The bottom line is that schools need our help,” she said.

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