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Flint water crisis: Milk to the rescue

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 January 2017
MMPA donated milk to Flint, Michigan

In the fall of 2015, the news broke about the Flint water crisis in Michigan, where Flint residents were found to have high blood levels of lead stemming from a contaminated municipal water source.

Today, residents are still not able to trust the water supply and are advised to use bottled water as the state of Michigan replaces the water pipes. Four months after the crisis erupted, the century-old milk cooperative Michigan Milk Producers Association (MMPA) stepped in and delivered the first of three loads of 12,000 gallons of milk. Since then, the co-op has donated an additional 24,000-plus gallons to those affected by the crisis.

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MMPA president Ken Nobis shared how that donation process unfolded at the recent Dairy Practices Council Conference held in East Lansing, Michigan.

The drinking water contamination began in April of 2014 when the city of Flint changed drinking water sources from the Detroit system to water from the Flint River. Corrosive water caused lead from the city’s old pipes to enter the water. A press conference was held in Flint on Sept. 24, 2015, after the discovery of elevated lead levels in the residents of the impoverished city due to the poor water supply. The Flint water crisis had emerged as a daily headline on every level as the story of an unsafe water supply went viral and the political blame game began.

As state and national officials began to unravel the mystery of the unsafe water supply, Michigan State University Extension, led by then-interim director Dr. Jeff Dwyer, released valuable research that calcium, iron and vitamin C were the immediate solution in mitigating the effects of lead in the body as they play a key role in blocking lead absorption. In one cup of milk, there are 300 mg of calcium.

On Jan. 5, 2016, Flint was declared a state of emergency, and on Jan. 18, Nobis and MMPA Director of Member Services and Government Relations Sheila Burkhardt were at a meeting with Dwyer when he outlined the findings of the role calcium played in blocking lead absorption and emphasized that milk was what the residents of Flint needed.

“Sheila and I listened to that, and when we left that meeting, we both had the same idea. This was something MMPA could help with, and we knew we could get milk into Flint very quickly,” Nobis explained.

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Burkhardt began working on the project immediately, and by 8:30 a.m., she called Nobis and said she had everything in place for the donation. “I said, ‘Holy cow! I have to get approval from the board first!’” Nobis recalled. “So I got on the phone, and within a couple of hours, I had contacted all of the board members, and they all said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”

Ken Nobis talking to news

Carl Rasch, director of milk sales at MMPA, contacted the longtime friend of MMPA, The Kroger Co. of Michigan, and they donated the processing and packaging costs of the milk while Quickway Carriers took care of transportation costs. “Within 24 hours of that meeting with Dr. Dwyer, we had the deal done, and within 96 hours, 12,000 gallons of 2 percent milk was sitting in cold storage at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan,” Nobis said.

Initially Nobis was concerned with the storage and distribution of the milk. “We wanted to make sure the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan had enough room for 12,000 gallons of milk and that the milk went to the families in need.” He continued, “As it turned out, we hardly made a dent in their cold storage, and the food bank staff knew exactly where the need was. They were the ideal group for getting the milk distributed.”

A media event was held to spotlight the milk donation at the suggestion of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of pediatrics at Hurley Children’s Hospital. Hanna-Attisha is the doctor credited with uncovering the lead poisoning in Flint residents.

“By this time, the warehouses were flooded with bottled water, but the Flint residents weren’t getting the nutritious foods that they really needed,” Nobis said. “Dr. Mona [Hanna-Attisha] wanted to get behind the microphone and make this a nutritional learning opportunity for people to become informed about the need for good nutrition.”

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As a cooperative, one of the core values of MMPA is community. Just days after this donation, Nobis was at a local MMPA meeting where he told his members about the milk that was donated. “Initially it was just silent and then they all began clapping,” Nobis said. “And that’s the kind of reaction we’ve had from all of our members, but the question was, ‘Can we do more?’”

Because of the members’ desire to help, MMPA delivered another 12,096 gallons of milk in March and 12,672 gallons in July and August for a total of 36,864 gallons for Flint in 2016. As MMPA celebrated its 100th anniversary as a cooperative, they also donated 100 gallons of milk per day for one year to the Food Bank Council of Michigan to be distributed to their network of food banks in all counties in Michigan.

“I wish all of our members could have been with us when we went through this whole process. The gratitude of the Eastern Michigan Food Bank was just phenomenal,” Nobis said. “At the media event in the food bank warehouse, even the workers at the food bank on forklifts handling the products made a point to come and thank us for what we had done.”

While the crisis was unfortunate, Nobis was thankful to be a part of the solution. He concluded, “It’s too bad it had to happen, but it’s been a great experience. There are problems all over this country, but I’m really proud that agriculture is involved to help overcome some of the human nutrition issues.”  end mark

MMPA was founded in 1916 and is a 1,200-member cooperative with members in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. They market 5 billion pounds of milk annually in three plants and are the 10th largest dairy cooperative in the U.S.

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer from North Adams, Michigan.

PHOTO 1: Gathering at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan on Jan. 22, 2016, to announce the milk donation are (left to right): Ken McClure of The Kroger Co. of Michigan; William Kerr of the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan; Dr. Jeff Dwyer of MSU Extension; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Pediatric Public Health Initiative, Hurley Children's Hospital and MSU; and Ken Nobis of MMPA.

PHOTO 2: Ken Nobis explains the donation of milk from MMPA at the media event held at the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. Photos courtesy of Michigan Milk Producers Association.

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