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USDA agrees to explore including protein-packed Greek yogurt in its School Lunch program

By Elaine WATSON , 01-Feb-2013
Last updated on 01-Feb-2013 at 14:53 GMT

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has confirmed it is considering including Greek yogurt in the National School Lunch Program, and has invited potential vendors to take part in a pilot scheme that could begin as early as April.

USDA has been under pressure to include Greek yogurt - which is high in protein but low in fat - to the list of foodstuffs in its food-entitlement program for months, following representations from New York senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and NY Congressman Richard Hanna.

Under the scheme, each state operating the National School Lunch Program receives an annual foods entitlement, which may be spent on any of the 180 domestically-produced foodstuffs on the list.

The inclusion of Greek yogurt could help create a more rounded set of protein offerings

Sales growth at Chobani, which only started producing Greek yogurt in 2007, has been nothing short of meteoric in recent years. The firm, which is America’s top selling yogurt brand, now commands more than 20% of the overall US yogurt market (dollar share).

In a letter to Schumer seen by FoodNavigator-USA, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, Kevin Concannon, said: “The inclusion of strained yogurt could help create a more rounded set of protein offerings for schools within the USDA Foods program.

“For these and other reasons, USDA would like to explore adding strained Greek yogurt to our list of product offerings”

Pilot to further ‘mutual goals of increasing exposure to this nutritious product’

In the coming weeks, USDA will seek information from potential vendors on product, pricing and availability in order to gauge interest from one or more states in participating in a pilot to use a portion of their USDA entitlement toward acquiring Greek yogurt, he said.

“If there is interest, USDA would issue a solicitation for the product and allow vendors to compete for the opportunity to provide strained yogurt to the interested state.

“USDA expects to complete this process so that deliveries of strained yogurt could begin as early as April 2013.

“I am hopeful that this will further our mutual goals of increasing exposure to this nutritious product.”

Chobani: 'This pilot program is not only a win for our schools, but for our dairy farmers as well'

The news was immediately welcomed by Greek yogurt firms.

A spokeswoman for market leader Chobani said: "We support this initiative, which will allow schools better access to Greek yogurt, giving them a cost-effective, nutritious and delicious way to diversify their menus and supply the protein that students need.

"This pilot program is not only a win for our schools, but for our dairy farmers as well. Greek yogurt requires more milk than unstrained yogurt – it takes 3 lbs. of milk to make 1 lb. of Chobani.

"We thank our delegates from both New York and Idaho -  Sen. Schumer, Sen. Gillibrand, Congressman Hanna, Sen. Risch, Sen. Crapo and Congressman Simpson -  for their tremendous advocacy on this issue."

Michael J. Neuwirth, senior director of public relations at The Dannon Company, added: "As the fastest growing maker of Greek yogurt in the USA, we are following this closely. We support improving the quality of foods offered in schools."

High protein, low fat

Fage USA, which is credited with introducing many Americans to Greek yogurt, opened its US plant in Johnstown, New York in 2008. It has since pumped millions of dollars into increasing capacity

One of the runaway success stories in the US food market in recent years, Greek yogurt typically contains around 10% protein, compared with traditional yogurt at around 3-4%.

However, Greek yogurt is not differentiated from traditional yogurt under USDA’s MyPlate nutrition guide or currently permitted as a high-protein option under the National School Lunch Program.

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