Dairy Myths with Will McWhirter, MBA, RDN, LDN

Full Transcript

Dalia 0:00

Hey everybody. Thank you for joining me for another episode of School Nutrition Dietitian. Today, I have a special guest from The Dairy Alliance. As you already know, there are set nutritional standards for the School Nutrition Program. If you receive any funding from the USDA, as so many of us do, there's a set meal pattern for us and dairy is part of that meal pattern. I thought it would be really helpful to have someone on who spends a lot of time focused on dairy and who has a background in nutrition.

Theme Song 0:31

[Theme music] School Nutrition Dietitian; here on a mission to show you fruits and vegetables can be super delicious. Eating healthy keeps you healthy on the inside, keep your stomach satisfied, and keep a clear mind. Now you're ready for your academics. Focused, time to handle business. Breakfast, you don't want to miss it. Help your body to replenish. Clean food, clear mind; that is the vision. Tune in to the School Nutrition Dietitian. [Fade]

Dalia 1:06

Hi, Will, thanks for coming on.

Will McWhirter 1:09

Absolutely. It's an honor to be on your podcast.

Dalia 1:11

I appreciate it. So, before we get into what The Dairy Alliance does, and how The Dairy Alliance partners with school systems, and school nutrition programs in particular, can you tell me a little bit about your educational background and your work experiences that led you to work with The Dairy Alliance?

Will McWhirter 1:32

Certainly, educational experience. I graduated from Clemson University, got a degree in food science. I've been quite fascinated with the power and you know the potential that nutrition can do for the body for many years. I think it started from when I was in high school, I ran cross country and coach would help us out with nutritional advice. Looking back, not necessarily everything was science-backed if you will but it got me interested. Yeah. And I naturally ate school lunch every day. And eaters didn't particularly care too much about what they were eating. But I was really into it. And I think like most high school guys, I tried to get as much food as I could. You know, so I was getting everything. I was getting vegetables, fruit, milk, grains, protein, and it was good stuff, too. I enjoyed it. That was in Columbia, South Carolina. Quick shout out to Hornell high school. But back to Clemson. So, I knew I wanted to work in foodservice as a dietitian, to some capacity. Didn't necessarily know what field of food service but I knew I wanted to feed people and we had a group project in my food service class that partnered us with Sally Nicholson, the local RD, Director of Pickens County Schools. I believe she's now with Lexington, one in South Carolina. But after the project I asked to shadow Sally, she obliged and I quickly picked up that school nutrition was the way to go. So, I had no doubt about it and never really looked back. I got to work for Pickens County after I graduated for a short time. Got to do some spring semester and then summer feeding. And then I managed to get a dietetic internship with Sarasota County Schools. And that was a really good experience. It's a school nutrition-focused dietetic internship which is not too common.

Dalia 3:24

Not at all. That's awesome.

Will McWhirter 3:26

Absolutely, you know, it really immersed us in all aspects of Child Nutrition and what RDs can do and in the child nutrition realm. I got to learn from some of the best in the business. Director Gerard is over the Sarasota program, Sarah Dan, and the team there, everybody's amazing. So, I got to act as an area supervisor, did nutrition education in the classroom, design and kitchen layout. And of course, we had our clinical and community rotations in there, too. It was a good time, I also met my wife. My wife is a dietitian, as well. So that's a pretty good secondary thing to get out of there.

Dalia 3:47

I can't imagine that's very common, either.

Will McWhirter 3:54

Never met any other dietitian couples. I know there's a couple out there though. They exist. After the internship, I passed the exam and I worked for a short time back home in South Carolina, just operating a dinner program at an Elementary School in the school district that I grew up in. Under Mr. Todd, my boss and a good friend of the dairy alliance. Well, after that, I got a job in Florida again. I went back down to Florida and spent five years working for Charlotte County Schools. Charlotte county is just south of Sarasota, just north of Fort Myers, had a great position there as the dietitian and nutrition specialist. I got to work under an amazing director, Karen . And I made the menus, product and recipe decisions, tested products with students, hosted some interns, and tried to get some Farm to School in there where I could. I oversaw our Summer Food Service Program, which is as most school nutrition folks know pretty much a job in itself. So yeah, did that for five years. And then, you know, I wanted to get back to a little bit closer to family. When this job opened up with The Dairy Alliance, Manager of Youth Wellness, I was all over it. I managed to get the job. I just started back in December. And I still feel pretty fortunate to get the gig. And here I am in Atlanta now.

Dalia 5:37

That's really interesting. That's very unique. Was this area, nutrition education, what you're focused on now, was that already your favorite part of working in school nutrition?

Will McWhirter 5:48

Hmm, it's a good question. Well, I think my favorite part of school nutrition, is the people, so just getting to know our neighbors while I was in Charlotte county and getting to know all the folks in Florida. Now, I'll get to do that in Georgia. So I get to travel around and work with child nutrition directors, dietitians, coordinators, cafe managers. And I'd say that that's my favorite part of school nutrition.

Dalia 6:15

You mentioned that you looked for opportunities to get some Farm to School programming in when you were working in Florida. Do you see a major connection between agriculture in the south and the dairy alliance?

Will McWhirter 6:35

Yeah, absolutely. You know, The Dairy Alliance itself, we exist to represent our farmers, farmers in the southeast. So I mean, we're completely based and dependent, if you will, on agriculture. But yeah, as far as just getting that in schools. That's important. It's important for students to know where the food is coming from.

Dalia 7:01

I had plans, a winter or two ago, it ended up being during flu season,on a raining day, so we didn't get to do it. But we were going to be visited by the dairy classroom. We were super disappointed that it didn't come. We put all this work in. We had a massive Mayfield cow, a fake cow, outside of the cafeteria for a whole week. We didn't tell the kids what it was about. They had a lot of questions and we just kept saying it's surprise. The last day we were supposed to have the dairy cow there in the outdoor classroom and it rained. Parents, some parents were convinced that getting rained on meant you would get the flu, so we ended up having to cancel. It was super disappointing. I thought it was cute how many kids thought chocolate milk comes from a chocolate cow. We were able to dispel that little bit of confusion. But they would have learned so much more from the dairy classroom. So hopefully in the future that's going to happen. I think it's really important for them to know more about where their dairy is coming from.

Will McWhirter 8:06

And that's part of my job, too. So but the mobile dairy classroom, you bring that up, that's an awesome resource. Technically, we're not associated with it as part of The Dairy Alliance, but we are promoting it all the time.

Dalia 8:18

Are they available in multiple states? I know they get booked out really fast.

Will McWhirter 8:25

They are. I couldn't tell you what specific states but I'm sure if folks did some looking they could find them. The one here in Georgia just sticks to Georgia. There's Georgia dollars making that happen. So, they wanted to stick to Georgia. But it's totally free.It's a great resource.

Dalia 8:46

So, can you describe what your current role is like at The Dairy Alliance? What is your typical day look like?

Will McWhirter 8:53

Sure. I've got a designated territory here in Georgia of counties that I work with. My goal is to find ways to promote dairy usage and consumption.So, we get so much funding each year from our dairy farm families. And we use that funding to acquire foodservice equipment, and it helps to promote dairy in schools. We are a nonprofit organization. We're not trying to sell things. We don't represent any particular brand or product, rather, we just want to promote nutritious dairy. So typical day, I'm working with child nutrition directors, office staff, dietitians, supervisors, coordinators, cafeteria managers, to find ways that I can help support their program by increasing meal participation, and then hopefully dairy consumption at the same time. So that's pretty much what my day consists of. There's like a bunch of other little things thrown into the mix. But it's right down my alley. Like I said earlier, I love just working with the people, different people throughout child nutrition. So I get to travel around the state and hang out with school nutrition.

Dalia 10:11

You mentioned that your program was focused on school nutrition when you did your internship, and then it had some public health elements in there, too. So, I'm sure you already knew that food beliefs are changing all the time. And a lot of times, the popular culture kind of gets swept away with things that have no basis on science. Now, what are some of the beliefs that you're seeing that are floating around about dairy? And it may be not fitting into a healthy diet? What information would you like to share about why dairy is part of the meal pattern in the first place?

Will McWhirter 10:56

Sure,there's lots of misconceptions out there about milk and dairy in general. Many of them are ridiculous, and kind of completely out of left field. They have permeated into our society and culture, unfortunately. A big one right now is that soy and almonds, and these plant-based drinks that aren't milk can be used as, quote-unquote, healthier substitutes for milk. And yet, they just don't really stack up against milk, all you have to do is put the nutrition labels together, and the ingredients list right next to each other. And when you're at the grocery, you can see the difference. Milk has a huge variety of essential vitamins and minerals that these other items don't have. Real milk has the protein and most of the others don't have any of. Soy does have some protein. But take coconut or almond milk, there's no protein in those. Sometimes I have to question why are you been drinking it and when it's mostly just water, might as well just drink some water. And then much of the vitamins and minerals, and these substitutes aren't naturally occurring. So, that's the added in, which means your body's not going to be able to utilize them as efficiently. And they'll also settle at the bottom of the carton. So, yeah, another big one is that folks will say they're lactose intolerant, so you can't drink milk. Which you know, if you're lactose intolerant, so fair. My wonderful wife is lactose intolerant. A number of folks are but the people that are lactose intolerant can still drink lactose-free milk, which has all the same benefits of regular milk, has the same nutrient profile, just no lactose in it. So, it's simple as that. Often times, folks with lactose intolerance can still handle a number of types of cheeses and even yogurt too, which often have little or no lactose in them at all. Antibiotics and hormones are two big, you know, buzzwords when it comes to food in general. But when it comes to dairy, there are no antibiotics in the milk. It's just simply not the case. All milk is tested multiple times, tested at the farmers when it's picked up, tested again at the processor to ensure that there's no presence of antibiotics, if, I mean, if antibiotics were found in milk, and the milk would have to be dumped, and the farmer responsible would have to buy all that milk back. And frankly, that's just not something that can be afforded. And it would be unethical. So, no worries about antibiotics and milk supply. They're just simply not there. When it comes to hormones. A lot of people will say that dairy products have crazy amounts of bad hormones in them. This one is also a serious misunderstanding, there's a couple of ways I could tackle this, there are minimal amounts of hormones naturally occurring in both animal and plant foods, including milk. So, if you take something like black beans, for instance, I'm going to pick on them for just a second, there's technically more naturally occurring hormones in black beans, then there are even in milk. But these hormones are all completely broken down during digestion. So, they don't have the opportunity to interact with your own hormone levels. Plus, even if they did, they still wouldn't have an effect because the estrogen found in a cow is not exactly the same estrogen that's found in people. So therefore, they wouldn't interact with the receptors in humans. And frankly, there's just a lot of bad and straight-up wrong information on the internet about that. And like I said earlier, kind of gotten into our culture almost seems like it's common knowledge, which, unfortunately, it's quite the opposite.

Dalia 14:44

It's interesting to me, I see a lot of health-conscious people buying whey protein shakes, and not having any qualms about that. But then not understanding that just regular old milk is also high protein food. And sometimes that is what people drink after they work out. So yeah, there's definitely a disconnect there. I guess if anything is said often enough, people will believe it no matter what it is. And I think it's important for people in school nutrition to remember, we're not the food police. So whatever personal food beliefs we have shouldn't affect how we present the food to our kids. If someone has decided they don't want any dairy in their diet, that's one thing. But we wouldn't want to maybe try and hold back parts of the meal pattern from our kids because of something we believe.

Will McWhirter 15:56

Absolutely. That's another one of my roles, is going to these school nutrition programs and talking about the benefits of dairy, so that the frontline workers can feel good about what they're offering students, to have that buy-in. We want them to be knowledgeable about the products that they're serving their children, their neighbor's children, their community's children.

Dalia 16:17

Right, absolutely. I noticed on The Dairy Alliance website a section talking about the New Look of School Milk program; what is that?

Will McWhirter 16:32

Yeah, so the New Look of School Milk program is about promoting milk in plastic bottles. That's taken off in some parts of the country, and in other parts of the country, not so much. Sometimes that's just because it may not be available, you know, the local distributor may not have access to it. It costs a little bit more per serving, but we find that students like it, and they oftentimes will prefer to take milk in a bottle than they would in the carton. Students, you know, they're used to purchasing bottled beverages with their own money and drinking a bottle at a gas station or, or just out anywhere and it kind of emulates that in the schools.

Dalia 17:20

So it's a way to compete with sweetened beverages?

Will McWhirter 17:24

Absolutely. Yeah. One of the programs that we have with The Dairy Alliance is we can provide recycling bins for school districts that decide that they're going to start the New Look of School Milk, and switch to plastic. Obviously, if you're going to start bringing a lot of plastic, you want to be able to recycle those if you can. So, that's just one way that we can support school districts that are switching to plastic.

Dalia 17:50

So since not all kids really like fluid milk and like you mentioned some people with lactose intolerance do well with other dairy products, what are some other ways that dairy is being served in schools ?

Will McWhirter 18:12

Yeah, so there's a lot of things. Smoothies and parfaits are the first things that come to mind. It's going to be popular choice with students. There's so many different ways, you know that you can prepare a smoothie or a parfait, you know, all sorts of different ingredients, you can add, mix and match. It's practically limitless, between fruits and vegetables. You can even put grains in and make some pretty awesome smoothies that way. Another big thing is something called coffee coolers, that seems to be just getting some take off, sort of an up and coming trendy dairy-based product in schools. It's a mixture of yogurt, milk, and then oftentimes, it's either an instant-coffee powder, or you could use a sugar-free chocolate syrup, then make specialty coffee drinks, like a mocha, or some sort of frappuccino. They can count as a meat meal alternate, and be part of the meal. We can also serve it a la cart as a smart snack in schools long as you know you have the portion sizes appropriate on that. Another cool option have was that I've heard of a school district too doing banana splits, kind of a specialty product students go crazy over them. They're made with yogurt, instead of ice cream. So, you could, you know, throw that on the menu for a really special day. It's probably a little bit more labor intensive, more expensive. But it's probably guaranteed positive results, too.

Dalia 20:02

Were people putting that out there for breakfast or more of a lunch thing?

Will McWhirter 20:07

You can do both. I've seen as a breakfast. I've seen it at lunches, sort of an extra treat. So and it doesn't have to be like an entire banana, of course.

Dalia 20:15


Will McWhirter 20:16

Just kind of keep it simple. And yeah, it's gone over really well.

Dalia 20:21

That's a fun idea. Where do you find some of these? I know there are a lot of resources on the website. Is that where you would recommend people look? Or where's all of this being collected?

Will McWhirter 20:33

A lot of our recipes that we use come straight from the National Dairy Council. The Dairy Alliance itself is sort of like the boots on the ground, regional collective, if you will, that works underneath the National Dairy Council and Dairy Management, Inc. There's a lot of chef-inspired, kid-tested school recipes that include dairy. You know, we've got our components on their crediting and critical control point steps in the recipes. Got everything from like overnight oats, which is becoming very popular here in Georgia and nationwide. You'll find recipes on the National Dairy Council website. Some of them will be more labor intensive. Some of them are pretty easy. Overnight oats for example are really easy.

Dalia 21:34

Have you seen that executed and as large scale food service setting?

Will McWhirter 21:42

Yeah, so I have seen it executed in a food service setting. It's basically just making a really large batch of these overnight oats, and then just portioning them out into cups. And all the recipes are online.

Dalia 21:59

Perfect. Now I see The Alliance has a ton of programs featured on the site. Which one are you personally the most excited about?

Will McWhirter 22:09

Hmm, well, I'm all about increasing meal participation. That's what a lot of clients are interested in as well, particularly breakfast. So, I'd say our expanding breakfast promotions are the big ones. That's probably what I'm most excited about. We have the opportunity to provide, like breakfast carts, breakfast kiosks. And, you know, you can start a new breakfast line, you could roll that kiosk out to the parking lot for high schoolers, catch them as they're coming into school. All sorts of different things you could do with it. And you can take them out to the parking lot. You can catch high school students as they're coming into the school provide some grab and grow opportunities there. But I've also heard from some districts that it can also be less labor intensive, in terms of you really only need one person, because you have the POS and the food right there, not doing a whole lot of serving. So, you know, you can have your smoothies, you can have, you know, your cereals, your milks, all your grains and fruit is right there on the cart, and the student just grabs and goes. So yeah, that's probably what I'm most excited about, just the opportunity to increase breakfast participation and make sure kids are starting the day off right.

Dalia 23:33

Do you think that also would probably be the program that most school food service operations would be the most interested in? I know everyone is concerned about increasing participation. Are there any others that you'd like to highlight?

Will McWhirter 23:48

Um, well, another one that we're big on is starting smoothie programs in schools. And like I said earlier, smoothies are very popular with students. It's usually not as labor intensive as people think it is. Especially if you're making large batch smoothies, just make a large batch, portion it out, and you're good to go. It's not like something that you have to continue to make throughout meal serve. No batch cooking involved there. So, but we can provide emergent blunders, big stick blunders. We've also got, you know, tabletop industrial sized blenders, tall blenders, they're like two gallons, one and a half gallons at a time. So, that's a big one. That's a good one. One more, I guess I could mention is that if you've got an old milk cooler, that's, you know, it's like 50 years old, it's constantly being repaired. Maybe it doesn't hold milk at an optimal temperature all the time. It's just barely making it. We could potentially replace the milk cooler and just get you a brand new one. So yeah, those are just, that's just a sample of some of our programs with The Dairy Alliance. No, other state regional groups throughout the country may not have those exact programs, but they probably have some that are similar. Or maybe, maybe they're the exact same ones. But for our region down here in the southeast, that's- those are just some of the programs that we have.

Dalia 25:21

Right. So really the best way for everyone to find who they should contact in their region is to start with the National Dairy Council and you work down from there to find your region or how do they find their contact person?

Will McWhirter 25:42

Yea, you're dead on. I would highly suggest just going to Natural Dairy Council. From there, you should be able to find what's called the state or regional groups. So here The Dairy Alliance, we are Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. We don't have Florida, Florida has their own group. But yeah, absolutely. And, you know, all these different state regional groups, they have folks that work specifically with schools, have experience with schools and are very knowledgeable. And they want to work with school districts. So, shouldn't need any hesitation, good people that want to help out schools, move some more dairy.

Dalia 26:30

Right. That's really exciting. And is it common for the person who is making those connections with schools to have as much experience actually working in a school system, as you do? Is that something that National Dairy Council looks for?

Will McWhirter 26:47

Well, it varies. So it's definitely looked for, for sure. Definitely desired. I certainly can't speak for the whole country. But I'd say most folks do have that experience. And the ones that don't know, they're all in. And they learn pretty quickly.

Dalia 27:07

There are a lot of the resources on the site for educational visits to the classroom that look really. I know I'm always looking for special things to do throughout the year, any reason to do something special at elementary, middle school, or sometimes the high schools, too. We had fun celebrating National Milk Day with our elementary school kids. We utilized a lot of the tools available on the website. We want to be aware of all the resources available to us and our students, with budgets being tight, it's a shame, not to be aware that they are free resources that are well-crafted, waiting to be used. So, thanks for coming on.

Will McWhirter 28:02

Oh, absolutely. Thanks for having me. I've really enjoyed speaking with you. .

Dalia 28:09

I hope you got a lot out of that episode. If you have any other questions, there are a lot of resources available online that I'm going to link to in the show notes. And as always, don't worry if you didn't get a chance to take any notes, you can just visit the website at www.schoolnutritiondietitian.com and you sign up for the mailing list and I will get those notes right over to you. If you haven't already, check out the Facebook page. That's a great place to start discussions about anything that you've heard here. You can find me on Instagram and LinkedIn, as well. Alright everybody, have a great week!

Theme Song 28:49

[Theme music] School Nutrition Dietitian; here on a mission to show you fruits and vegetables can be super delicious. Eating healthy keeps you healthy on the inside, keep your stomach satisfied, and keep a clear mind. Now you're ready for your academics. Focused, time to handle business. Breakfast, you don't want to miss it. Help your body to replenish. Clean food, clear mind; that is the vision. Tune in to the School Nutrition Dietitian. [Fade]