BY JOE OLENICK
Niagara Gazette — Schools throughout the country will soon be offering Greek yogurt with their lunches, as part of a Department of Agriculture pilot program announced this week by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
The long-term goal is to have the yogurt, most of which is made in New York, featured permanently in school lunchrooms as part of the USDA’s Foods List. The list contains over 180 nutritious foods that state agencies are eligible to buy with USDA food entitlement money. Greek yogurt would be categorized on the Foods List as an additional protein option – a meat alternative to achieve meal nutrition requirements.
Schumer was among the New York congressional leaders who in June asked the USDA to classify Greek yogurt as a protein. In a Wednesday conference call with reporters, Schumer expressed his love of Greek yogurt.
“I eat it just about every night,” he said, adding that Greek yogurt was served at President Obama’s inauguration earlier this month. As chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Schumer helped select a luncheon menu that included an array of New York products, including wine.
The USDA sent a letter to Schumer stating it would start the pilot program expected to place Greek yogurt in schools across the country as early as April. The pilot will help test market demand for Greek yogurt in schools, which could be an economic gain for New York, Schumer said.
New York companies hold about 70 percent of the nation’s $6 billion Greek yogurt market. The industry employs about 1,500 people in the Empire State, with 800 new jobs expected this year.
The New York-based Greek yogurt industry includes companies like Chobani, Fage, Alpina and the future Muller Quaker. In addition, because Greek yogurt requires more milk than regular yogurt, New York’s dairy farmers would also benefit, the senator said.
“The USDA’s pilot program will serve as an important first step in boosting nutrition for New York students, all while bolstering business for our dairy farmers and Greek yogurt producers alike,” Schumer said.
The USDA is expected to look for information from vendors over the next few weeks. In the letter to Schumer, the USDA said adding Greek yogurt would improve the offerings on its Foods List.
“The list of USDA food product offerings is routinely updated, with new and more healthful products added every year. Protein products are often the most popular items chosen from the list and the inclusion of strained (Greek) yogurt could help create a more rounded set of protein offerings for schools within the USDA Foods program,” USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon said in a statement.
Some educational leaders are on board as well.
“We support the efforts by Senator Schumer and the USDA to provide a healthy alternative with Greek yogurt to our students’ school meal programs,” New York State School Boards Association Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer said in a statement.