Chobani Greek Yogurt; Photo Courtesy: Associated Press
By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Greek yogurt may soon be widely available at public schools because of its high protein content.
Federal agriculture officials plan to ask companies that sell the yogurt to come up with a strategy for providing it in bulk on a trial basis through the federal school breakfast and lunch programs.
The move marks a public relations coup for Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who asked the Agriculture Department in June last year to consider recognizing Greek yogurt as an alternative to meat.
"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. "To put it simply, New York schools will soon be able to say they've 'Got Greek Yogurt.'"
New York's burgeoning Greek yogurt industry, which includes upstate processing facilities operated by Chobani, Fage and Alpina, could reap a windfall from the department's decision.
Another major facility is under development in Batavia by Muller Quaker, a joint venture by PepsiCo and Theo Muller Group of Germany.
Kevin Concannon, agriculture undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, announced the decision in a letter to Schumer.
His letter says the department will "explore" making "strained yogurt'' - also known as Greek yogurt - part of its food entitlement program, in which the federal government pays for bulk purchases on behalf of school districts.
"The list of USDA food product offerings is routinely updated, with new and more healthful products added every year," Concannon wrote. "Protein products are often among the most popular items chosen from the list, and the inclusion of strained yogurt could help create a more rounded set of protein offerings for schools within the USDA Foods program.''
The Agriculture Department's list of 180 food items available in bulk to school kitchens and other institutions include frozen beef patties, Empire apples, parboiled long-grain rice, yellow American cheese, frozen cherries, cornmeal and peanut butter.
The department will ask vendors to propose unit quantities and pricing for Greek yogurt. The agency also will find out which states want to participate in the trial.
The New York State School Boards Association may participate, according to Schumer's spokeswoman, Meredith Kelly. Schumer met Tuesday morning with officials of the state school boards group in Washington.