HARLEM— With six kids at home, milk doesn't last long in Audrey Mitchell's house. She purchased three gallons on Friday and, by Monday afternoon, only one was left.
"Milk is like water," said Mitchell, 42, a bookkeeper at a supermarket who often searches for deals on milk. "Sometimes I don't buy milk because it's too expensive.
So when her sister told her about Milk From the Heart's weekly program that delivers free milk at Lenox Avenue and West 111th Street, she lined up along with dozens of others to get two free quarts of one percent low-fat.
Started by social services provider Homes for the Homeless in February with a $300,000 donation from real estate developer and philanthropist Leonard Stern and his wife Allison, Milk From the Heart gives out 14,000 quarts of milk per month at 10 locations in Manhattan and three in the Bronx.
Jonah Nelson, a project coordinator, said the milk distribution started out as a pilot project because food pantries don't make fresh milk available. The powdered milk that they often give out is whole fat, which is only recommended for one year-olds. Two to three servings of low fat milk per day is recommended for older kids.
Lower income kids report drinking less low fat milk than those with higher incomes. And the neighborhoods where Milk From the Heart delivers are food deserts where there is less access to fresh, healthy food and obesity rates are higher. Many of the local bodegas do not carry low-fat milk.
When they do, many overcharge. A 2008 survey from the City Council found 43 out of 50 retailers charging above regulated prices for milk. Milk prices in the northeast are 19 percent higher than they were just a couple of years ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average price of a gallon of milk in the city now $4.
As the cost of milk has risen, consumption has declined among children while soda consumption has skyrocketed.
"We thought we would only find pockets of need but we found a city in need," said Nelson. "It's hard times out here."
Monday's line on Lenox Avenue was just across the street from multi-million dollar condos at Central Park North. It stretched to the end of the block and continued to grow as milk was distributed.
To qualify for the two quarts of milk recipients only need to have a child in their home. The deliveries at all 13 sites never meets the demand.
"We have this line during the dead of winter. People sometimes wait two to four hours for a half-gallon of milk. That really speaks to the need," said Nelson.
Doris Lugo, 43, who lost her job when the supermarket she worked at closed, said both she and her husband , a hotel worker, were unemployed. The milk will help them stretch their razor thin budget.
"With the money you you would use for milk maybe I can have extra money for food, a piece of meat or chicken," said Lugo, who has two children and stood on line with her niece.
Since she last received the milk a few months ago, Lugo said she noticed the line has grown longer.
Standing behind Lugo was Tim Thomas, 50, who is disabled. Living on a fixed income, he said the milk would allow him and his wife to provide cereal for his grandchildren and milk for his coffee.
"I try to buy a gallon of milk but it's kind of high. Some places want almost $5. That's a lot of money because I'm on a fixed budget," said Thomas.
"Now that I have milk, I can buy an extra bag of cereal or a loaf of bread."
And Mitchell can take a break from searching milk sales for at least another day.
"It's not going to last but it still will make a difference," she said.