The Greek yogurt boom is hitting New York State’s public schools. In the fall, students will be able to add the high-protein food to their cafeteria trays.
New York, a leader in Greek yogurt production, is one of four states participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Greek Yogurt Pilot Program, which will put the rich yogurt on school lunch menus in participating schools this September.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Richard Hanna, R-Utica, announced New York’s participation Monday, when the USDA posted its solicitation to vendors to secure suppliers for the initiative.
If the pilot program – which Arizona, Idaho and Tennessee are also participating in – is successful, it could go nationwide.
New York State is home to multiple Greek yogurt companies, such as Alpina and Quaker Muller, which have plants in Batavia, and Chobani and Fage. With the solicitation just posted Monday, companies have yet to announce possible involvement as school suppliers.
Schumer sees New York’s participation in the experiment as an “excellent match” because of the state’s position in the Greek yogurt and dairy industries.
“I am proud to see this pilot plan reach this final step, because it’s a boon for New York yogurt and dairy industries, and it’s beneficial for the health of our kids,” said Schumer in a statement. He first petitioned for the USDA to create the program in June 2012.
Gillibrand and Hanna are longtime supporters of getting Greek yogurt into schools; in January, they petitioned for New York State to be part of the trial.
The program will “benefit upstate New York’s local economy,” said Gustavo Badino, general manager at Alpina Foods, in a statement. He added that the company is “excited” by the USDA’s selection of New York.
Greek yogurt has “revitalized the category” of yogurt and is bringing new people into dairy, according to Beth Meyer, the director of communication for the American Dairy Association & Dairy Council, which represents dairy farmers in New York, Pennsylvania and Northern New Jersey.
She sees children, some of who may not be familiar with Greek yogurt, developing a taste for it from the new exposure. Overall, she has noticed increased interest in the product, which now makes up at least 36 percent of the yogurt market – a big jump since 2007.
“Anything that brings people into dairy is a good thing” for farmers, she said.
The pilot program is designed to test the cost-effectiveness of providing Greek yogurt within schools, and the USDA will evaluate the program in December 2013. The states involved in the pilot have differing proximities to manufacturers, allowing the program to test the distribution of the highly perishable food through different warehouse models.
Under the pilot program, Greek yogurt counts as a “meat alternative,” said Andrea Thompson, the vice president of school marketing for the American Dairy Association. She said school boards are “cautiously optimistic” about how Greek yogurt will fit into menu planning as a “meat.” If successful, Greek yogurt will be added to the USDA’s list of foods available for schools to purchase.
Chobani supports the new program, which will make Greek yogurt more affordable to schoolchildren, according to Lindsay Kos, the company’s communication manager.
“We strongly believe that kids should have access to simple, delicious, nourishing foods, like Greek yogurt,” she wrote in an email.
The USDA’s solicitation, which ends July 22, seeks flavored 4-ounce and unflavored 32-ounce containers of yogurt for schools to serve. The Farm Service Agency will assess the bids and announce awards by the end of July.