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Feeding the family: Milk

Road to health, white river of life?

Two boys beside a partially visible cow in a dairy. One boy is about sixteen, and sits on a low stool. The other is about ten, and kneels on one knee beside the stool. Both wear shorts and shirts. The younger boy wears a vest. The older boy holds one of the cow’s teats and directs a stream of milk at the younger boy, who has his mouth wide open and his eyes shut. The milk goes into his mouth. Some of it has splashed on his face. Thumbnail image.

Two English migrant boys enjoying very fresh milk at a farm school near Molong, New South Wales, 1958. Source: NAA: A12111, 1/1958/8/29.

A dairy farmer unloads milk urns from a covered trailer, onto a concrete platform. The trailer is attached to an old style utility car, the back of which is visible at the left of the image. The farmer wears a hat, shirt, ‘bib and brace’ overalls and boots. At the far left of the image is another man, who is handling another milk urn. All of the urns are about mid-thigh height and made of metal. In the background is a dirt road and bushland. Thumbnail image.

A dairy farmer shifts milk in urns from his dairy to a pick-up point near Bowral, New South Wales, 1968. Source: NAA: A1200, L72218.

A glass milk bottle sits on a white surface. The bottle is toward the right side of the image. A strong light from beyond the right side of the image causes the bottle to cast a shadow toward the left of the image. The background recedes into darkness. On the bottle can be seen the word ‘milk’ and the letters ‘MBA’. Thumbnail image.

A glass milk bottle from the 1930s – 1950s. Source: Collection Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Photo: Sotha Bourn.

A group of young schoolchildren take bottles of milk from a tray on a desk in a classroom. The children taking the milk are all boys. Three stand close together while one stands slightly off to the right looking straight at the camera. In the background several other children sit at individual desks. They all look at the camera. At the back of the classroom is a large set of windows through which can be seen a playground, distant trees and some hills. Thumbnail image.

School children taking free milk at a school in the Australian Capital Territory, 1965. Source: NAA: A1200, L52519.

A brightly coloured illustrated poster depicting a family of four having a picnic. They are dressed in brightly coloured casual clothing from the era, and all sit on a picnic rug. On the ground in front of them is a picnic basket and food. To the right of the family is an illustration that shows a glass jug, tall glass bottle and a partially visible drinking glass, all containing milk. Behind the family is a sign that says ‘Road to Health’. Behind the sign is a stand of trees. Thumbnail image.

A 1930s poster from the Australian Milk Board, promoting a healthy lifestyle via milk. Source: State Library of Victoria (H97.252/18).

A man delivers milk to a woman at the front of her home. The man wears overalls, and stands on the front steps of the home. The woman stands on the top step, wearing a dress and an apron. She holds a milk bottle in her right hand, and is accepting another bottle with her left hand. Behind her is the verandah of her home. On it is a large potted plant and a wooden park-style bench seat. The front wall of her home is made up of small and large bricks. Thumbnail image.

A milkman delivers milk to a woman at her home in 1950s Australia. Source: State Library of Western Australia (128097PD).

A man stands at a conveyor belt in a dairy products factory. He wears white trousers, a white shirt and a hair net, and smiles broadly at the camera. Cartons of milk are on the conveyor belt, which forms a loop around the man. The floor is tiled; in the background is dairy factory equipment. The man holds a carton of milk in his hands. Thumbnail image.

A milk processor and packer at the Bega Co-operative, Bega, New South Wales, 1995. Source: NAA: A6135, K27/2/95/101.

A collection of milk containers on a table. To the left background is a row of cartons with branding and text on them. The cartons range in size from one litre, to one quart, two litres and half gallon. In front of them is a row of 600 millilitre capacity cartons, also with branding and text on them. In front of those cartons is a row of 300 millilitre capacity cartons, also with branding and text. To the right of the image are glass bottles containing milk and more cartons. The bottles are arranged in rows of large and small sizes. The cartons appear to be either the one litre or one quart size. One small carton sits in front of the row of small bottles. Thumbnail image.

Milk in metric measurement containers, 1974.  Source: NSW Government. Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (d3_22502).

A set of shelves in the dairy products section of a supermarket. The shelves hold a selection of milk brands, in cartons and plastic bottles. Price labels are visible on the front of the shelves. Further along the shelves, toward the left of the image, other dairy products can be seen. Thumbnail image.

Milk products on the shelves of a supermarket, 2012. Source: Catherine Styles.

Learning activities

Milk remains a staple food for many Australian families. The activities below are designed to provide students with an understanding of how the supply and consumption of milk has changed over time, and how their own experiences of milk are different in some ways and yet the same in others in comparison to the milk experiences of their parents and grandparents.

The learning activities in this resource teach students to:

  • observe and sequence
  • research and contextualise
  • empathise and speculate

1. Observe and sequence


  • printouts of historical images (click on the images above to enlarge for printing or display) 


Hold a class conversation about milk.

  • Who drinks milk?
  • How much do you drink, and what kind?
  • Where does milk come from? (Cows, sheep, goats, soybeans – and for human babies, their mother!)
  • What other foods are made from milk?

Introduce the first activity: inform students that some of these images of milk are from not very long ago, some were made when their parents were very young, and some were made when their grandparents were very young.

Show the class printouts of the historical photographs (the first six images above) and ask students to place them in a sequence from earliest to most recent. As they do so, ask them to explain their choice. What clues are they seeing in the photograph that it is very old or not so old?

Information that will help students place the photographs in time:

  • Several states issued free milk to school children prior to 1950, and from 1950 to 1973 all Australian children aged 5 to 12 were given up to half a pint of milk to drink each school day.
  • Around 1974, milk containers were converted from pint-sized glass bottles (568ml) to litre-sized waxed cardboard cartons. Today in Australia, milk is available in cartons and plastic bottles.

In some cases, the images could have been made at any time from 1930 to 1970. Use this ambiguity to discuss change and continuity. What hasn't changed? You may wish to draw the students' attention to changes such as:

  • packaging (glass bottles, waxed cardboard cartons)
  • supply (home-delivery, supermarket)
  • diversification (full-cream cow's milk, skim, soy, goat etc)

Then show students the photograph of the milk bottle circa 1930–1950. (Note the difference between the medium – a colour photograph – and the object which is quite old.) Where would the object (not the photograph) go in the timeline?

Now show students the colour poster from the 1930s and ask them where this one should go in the timeline. How does it compare to advertisements you see today?

2. Research and contextualise


  • pen and paper or an audio recording device
  • drawing materials or pen and paper


As a homework task, encourage students to ask an elder in their family (such as a grandparent) if they remember being given milk to drink at school. Is it a happy memory? Why or why not? If they don't recall being given milk at school, ask them what other milk-related memories they have. Did they have milk home-delivered? Did they ever milk a cow?

Record the elder's response either with an iPod or other audio recorder, or by writing some notes.

In class, report on what they heard, either in handwriting or by drawing a picture.

3. Empathise and speculate


  • imagination!


  • Watch the video Milk – White River of Life, made in 1946 to promote the health benefits of drinking milk.
  • Read the letter from the 'Free Milk and Nutritional Council of Western Australia' to the prime minister (9 December 1943 – first two pages of this National Archives file).

Talk to the class about the role of government in helping citizens to be healthy. Refer students back to the coloured poster and the photograph of school children drinking milk, and explain that in the past, the government wanted everyone to drink milk because they wanted everyone to benefit from the vitamins and minerals in milk. You might like to share some of the contents of the letter to the prime minister, to explain the circumstances that led to the free milk scheme.

Ask the students what they learned about the free milk scheme by talking to their grandparents. Are there disadvantages as well as advantages to the free milk scheme?

In small groups, ask students to think of another way the government could promote health among the population. What actions could people take to improve their health? How could the government encourage people to do that? What would inspire people to change their behaviour?

Students could present their idea in one of two ways:

  • as a graphic poster, which they then show and explain to the class, or
  • as a short play

In either case, students could present their idea in three parts:

  • the problem their idea addresses
  • how it works – what action is taken? How does it change people's behaviour?
  • the result


Go to Feeding the family and the teacher support video.

Go to other pages in this resource:


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