Darigold’s ultra-pasteurized 64-ounce cartons are now 59 ounces, meaning WIC participants can no longer buy the product with their checks, e-cards or vouchers.
WIC participants in rural Alaska already contend with high prices and limited food options. In Bristol Bay, the cost of milk is about twice the national average. And at times Darigold is the only milk brand on store shelves in Dillingham.
Walter Pickett is the vice president of operations for the Alaska Company, or AC, a chain of grocery stores that serve rural Alaska and sell Darigold milk. Pickett said AC searched for other vendors without success.
“The closest alternative that we found is in California,” he said. “And with the cost of freight from California to the Port of Tacoma [in Seattle], which is where we ship all of our freight to Alaska, it was not deemed the cost-effective alternative.”
In Dillingham, AC is one of two grocery stores. Their milk shipments travel from Washington state to Anchorage, and then arrive via barge or plane. Importing groceries from farther away — or even selecting differently sized products — could affect shipping costs and raise sticker prices.
“We looked at, you know, instead of half gallons, could we sell two quarts, or four quarts for a gallon? The challenge there is the space required when you start shipping up quarts in place of half gallons,” Pickett said.
Darigold’s change only affects ultra-pasteurized milk. Ultra-pasteurized milk lasts three times longer than other fresh milk products — a plus for perishables traveling to rural Alaska that spend significant time in transit.
Another long-lasting option is shelf-stable milk. Pickett said he’s noticed an increase in purchases of shelf-stable milk after the change. But this milk can have an off-putting aftertaste, due to its sterilization process, and he acknowledges that many customers prefer fresh milk.
Pickett said AC asked Alaska’s congressional delegation to try to change the federal standards so that WIC participants could buy the new sized milk. That process is ongoing.
Reducing a product’s size without dropping the price is known as “shrinkflation” and the phenomenon is becoming increasingly common around the world. In a written statement, Darigold said that the size change was in response to rising production costs and the effect of inflation on farmers. Nationally, farmers have contended with rising prices for animals and feed.
Alaska’s WIC program office did not respond to requests for comment in time for this story.
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