ROSEMONT, ILL. – Dairy Management Inc. shared that the dairy checkoff partnered with a school dining services company to launch a pilot program developed to deliver hot chocolate milk options to school cafeterias.

The National Dairy Council (NDC) pilot is operating in 58 schools through its partnership with Chartwells K12. The program will run through the end of the school year and NDC said hot chocolate milk is available to students at breakfast and lunch.

Previously, a checkoff-launched smoothie pilot project for schools in 2022 inspired Chartwells K12 to make that program available to every school with which it works.

Lisa Hatch, vice president of business development for NDC’s school channel, said the partners wanted to find “the next big thing” after the success of the smoothie program. They landed on hot chocolate, noting the beverage’s global market size valued at $3.8 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to $5.77 billion by 2030. They also referenced the popularity of chocolate on TikTok, where chocolate ranks second in beverage flavor popularity and there are 10 million-plus views for videos with the hashtag #ChocolateDrink.

Hatch also shared that some state and regional checkoff groups have successful hot chocolate strategies and experienced 14% increases of milk sales on average, as well as an 11% increase in breakfast participation.

“We’re always investigating opportunities to enhance the school milk experience, which is where the smoothie pilot came from,” Hatch said. “That led us to looking at trends and hot chocolate surfaced the same way smoothies did. And looking at the state and regional hot chocolate programs, the results were very impressive.”

Schools that are part of the pilot program received a hot chocolate milk kit – a transport cart, insulated beverage dispenser, digital thermometer, etc. – that NDC provided through foodservice equipment manufacturer Hubert.

Lindsey Palmer, a registered dietitian who serves as vice president of nutrition and industry relations for Chartwells K12, said the program is brining a healthy option to schools as the popularity of specialty beverages spreads.

“With our new hot chocolate milk concept, students can enjoy a fun, warm beverage that is packed with essential nutrients, making it a delicious and healthy treat to help kids power through their day,” Palmer said.

NDC vice president of nutrition affairs Katie Bambacht cited research that shows chocolate milk is the most popular option in schools and leads to higher total milk consumption, noting the flavored milk contains the same 13 essential nutrients as white milk.

“School feeding programs are faced with numerous priorities, and dairy innovation isn’t always top of mind,” Bambacht said. “If we’re not doing it, I don’t think anyone would. We play a critical role in bringing these best practices and case studies to help assure that milk appeals to students as part of school menus.”

Bambacht also noted “there is a big gap in participation” between breakfast and lunch programs at schools.

“Anything we can do to provide simple options such as heating up chocolate milk may help increase participation and milk consumption,” she said.