So, CNN decided to run a folksy segment about how inflation has been hitting real Americans in the pocketbook, and in doing so introduced us to the Stotlers, a family that appears to be single-handedly propping up the American dairy industry.
To which the internet replied…
And snarked …
One important bit of context here is that the Stotlers are raising nine children (seven of them adopted or in foster care), many of whom are teens. And soon, backlash ensued from those suggesting that East Coast liberal elites were once again mocking a perfectly normal heartland family.
I am not here to mock the Stotlers. But I do want to settle one thing: Even adjusted for family size, 12 gallons a week is indisputably a hell of a lot of dairy in a country where milk consumption has been in long-term decline.
Before I get into American consumption patterns, let us stipulate: CNN’s segment was absolute trash for reasons completely unrelated to the amount of 2 percent this family purchases. First, it gives a completely misleading impression of the severity of the inflation America is seeing right now—for milk, groceries, and pretty much everything else. (Also, food prices can generally be a bit volatile and give a misleading impression of overall inflation.) The average price of milk has not been $1.99 in the country in quite literally decades. In January of this year, before inflation really kicked in, the lowest average price in any of the 31 major cities tracked by the Department of Agriculture was $2.52 a gallon. It also hasn’t gotten that much more expensive: Year over year, the price of fresh whole milk has only increased by 3.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks consumer prices. So unless the Stotlers have started buying organic, I don’t really know what’s going on with their dairy budget. Same goes for most of the rest of the supermarket: While the family suggests its weekly grocery budget has jumped from between $150 and $200 all the way up to $310, in real life, food prices have risen 4.5 percent.
The piece reaches a sort of platonic state of cable news parody when the family matriarch claims that a dollar in June is worth 70 cents today, as if the United States had actually entered a state of hyperinflation. (In reality, CPI is up 5.4 percent year over year.) Somehow, this goes unchallenged. To make matters worse, it somehow neglects to mention that a family with nine kids would be eligible for thousands of dollars per month in child tax credit payments thanks to President Joe Biden’s relief legislation, more than enough to cover the extra expense of milk.
But now, back to the main question: Is 12 gallons of milk a week a lot of milk for a family of 11? The answer here is yes. It is a friggin’ ton of milk.
Now, I should be transparent. I grew up a Jewish kid in New York City, a cultural milieu where the idea of drinking a tall glass of milk at the table with dinner is simply considered aberrant behavior, the sort of thing that will draw stares and whispers from strangers. There are other parts of the United States where milk-guzzling is considered the cultural norm, and that is fine. I’m not here to tell you that the thing you like to sip with lunch or after breakfast is bad.
But while a majority of Americans drink milk on its own, according to consumer research, most people aren’t sipping a glass at lunch or dinner on a given day; overall daily per capita consumption is less than half a cup. The actual number of people who consume any fluid milk at meal or snack time has declined significantly over the decades, in part thanks to the rise of plant-based milk alternatives along with other changing tastes. According to a 2013 report from the Department of Agriculture, just 8.8 percent of Americans on any given day have milk with dinner, down from 14.1 percent in the early 1990s. A little more than a quarter consume it at breakfast, but keep in mind these figures include it in coffee and cereal, not just as a beverage on its own.
Meanwhile, the USDA’s most recent report shows that the average teenager drinks about 0.4 cups of cow’s milk on a given day, or 2.8 cups per week. Now, these numbers average in non–milk drinkers, too, and there is obviously a great deal of variation between households within the range that one might still consider “normal.” But a gallon is 16 cups. Unless I’ve missed something while digging through ag data, that seems like a lot per week by contemporary American standards.
And now, I’m going to go take a Lactaid.