The Milkman Rings Again, Bringing Back Nostalgia in a Glass Bottle

Most local grocery and convenience stores put the price of milk up on red-lettered signs and placards because it's a must-shop-for item -- it's the gateway purchase, the one that gets us to the store in the first place.

Consumers often make a determination about where to shop based on the price-per-gallon, an indicator of the store's other prices (or a warning that the rest of the prices are going to be outrageous to make up for it, such as at a convenience store). And once you're in the door for milk, the stores hope, you're locked in as a customer.

But these days, the old joke about going out for eggs and milk and coming home with $100 in groceries is more of a reality than most family budgets can bear. That's just one reason the old-fashioned milkman is coming back -- and maybe should be back in your life, too.We know most of our readers weren't grocery shopping back in the days when milk deliveries started to dwindle; by the 1970s, the career of "milkman" had became solely a euphemism for "illicit lover." But in the past four or five years, the milkman has had a resurgence.

I've been on board -- except for a few weeks when I forgot to submit my orders -- since 2008, preferring to get my milk straight from a dairy. It's part of the growing consumer desire to connect directly with the producers, buy local, and, in some cases, opt out of plastic (all the local dairies I use deliver in old-fashioned, reusable glass bottles).

About that plastic: Science journalist Susan Freinkel has been making the rounds this week with anecdotes and quotes from her new book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, a look at our use of the off-gases from energy production that is both historical and forward-looking.

In an interview that aired on "Marketplace," Freinkel said, "We take natural substances created over millions of years, fashion them into products designed for a few minutes' use, and then return them to the planet as litter that we've engineered to never go away," going on to theorize, "Well I think one place we start is by recognizing, again, that these are valuable materials and really thinking hard about where it makes sense to use them. Disposable items -- that's a great invention, it's brought modern convenience -- but again, sometimes that convenience comes with a huge cost and I think we need to be asking ourselves when is that cost really worth it? When could we go back to using something that is more reusable?"

It's not just that plastic will sit in landfills for tens of thousands of years, and it's not just that plastic requires lots of energy to produce or that some excessive quantity of natural non-renewable materials goes into them. It's also that the effects of some of the chemicals in plastics aren't fully understood (and, as Freinkel says, the plastic industry is "quick to rebut any studies that come out suggesting a correlation between exposure to synthetic chemicals and possible health issues").

Getting milk that's fresh, straight from a dairy that you can go visit and learn its cows' names and whose bottles you can return the next week for wasteless, non-toxic refill: Is this a service that should have been discarded along with poodle skirts?

More and more consumers, like me, are saying "No way!" In an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times last year, Santa Ana-based Rockview Farms said they had 4,800 homes on the dairy's delivery route, and that many customers share drop-off points to meet delivery minimums.

Though it's more expensive than convenience-store milk, direct-from-the-dairy customers rave about the taste (I can attest that the difference is enormous). And milkmen often make value-added deals with neighboring farms to deliver in-season produce, cheeses and yogurt, cutting out more middlemen and saving energy. An efficient urban delivery route isn't much different than the one a big dairy would take to dozens of large and small grocery, convenience and drug stores, and customers get to stay home drinking farm-fresh smoothies instead of running out to the store wasting gas.

This is a trend that's remarked on once a year or so and deserves to become a market force. In 2007, the New York Times pointed to milkmen in Milton, Mass.; North Aurora, Ill.; Middleton, Md. (South Mountain Creamery delivers to the Baltimore/Washington D.C. area and has a waiting list in the hundreds); and Barnstead, N.H. Here in Portland, Ore., two dairies will deliver to your door and several more deliver to cooperative drop-off points where customers leave last week's bottles in crates on front porches, in garages, and at the back doors of coffee shops.

I get my milk from Lady Lane, where Garry Hansen proudly milks his Jersey cows and I can go online to look at glamour shots of "the ladies." Nostalgia, nice story, new trend? I don't care. It's the best milk I've ever had, and I'm never tempted to pick up a bag of chips and a candy bar, too. Hansen's milk may cost twice as much as the corner store's, but I'm sure I save money in the end, and I never have to call my husband and say, "Don't forget to pick up the milk!"

You know, the milkman may paradoxically have become marriage's new savior.
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