Officials pitch state for school lunch yogurt test
CAPITAL REGION State and federal leaders Thursday continued their push to place New York at the forefront of the growing Greek yogurt craze, with offers for help to dairy farmers and a pitch to agriculture officials scouting a test site for a school lunch initiative.
State Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine issued a letter dated Wednesday to the U.S. Department of Agriculture describing New York as the right place for the USDA to pursue a pilot program exploring increased access to Greek yogurt through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast programs.
Vigorous activity on the part of the state’s yogurt production plants, and the dairy farms that supply them, demonstrate the Empire State is right place for the feds to look to start a program, he said in the letter.
The state’s yogurt plants saw more than a 100 percent increase in production over the past five years while milk production jumped from 158 million pounds to 1.2 billion pounds, Aubertine said.
“New York is leading the nation in the production of strained Greek yogurt with plants such as Chobani, Fage, Alpina and Mueller-Quaker calling our state home,” he wrote.
New York state has an active food policy council and farm-to-school program, Aubertine said,.
“We have the expertise and capacity to run a world-class pilot program to demonstrate the benefits of including strained Greek yogurt as a healthy, cost-effective food entitlement for school lunches. I applaud USDA’s efforts to make available this highly nutritious food to more schoolchildren.”
Technical changes in USDA regulations are needed in order for the protein-rich strained Greek yogurt to yield financial savings for schools, Aubertine said in the letter.
Strained Greek yogurt has twice as much protein as its unstrained counterpart, but the USDA hasn’t yet recognized that, so it counts Greek yogurt as one “meat/meat alternative” instead of two, he said.
Crediting the strained Greek yogurt with a recognition of its protein content could yield a savings for districts of between 2 and 20 cents for each 4-ounce cup, Aubertine said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., another official who appreciates the Greek yogurt craze, announced plans Thursday to help dairy farmers maximize their role supplying the booming demand for yogurt’s raw materials.
Schumer in a news release said he and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, are drafting legislation that would create federal savings accounts for dairy farmers looking to expand to capture some of the growing yogurt business.
The bipartisan DAIRY Act, which stands for Dairy Augmentation for Increased Retail in Yogurt products, would give farmers a tax break on any money they decide to save for at least six months in the new savings account.
Doing so would allow farmers to invest in boosting production with money they would otherwise be forking over to the government in taxes.
Another bill Schumer introduced would put farmers on the same level as other businesses when it comes to writing off capital expenses. Currently, farmers can deduct half of the cost of livestock purchases — but only if they are buying a cow that hasn’t been producing milk already, according to Schumer’s release.
Both initiatives, Schumer said, would help dairy farmers capitalize on the growing Greek yogurt boom.
“Upstate farmers have got milk, and now we need to help them get more of it on store shelves across the country to keep the dairy engine revving in New York state,” he said in the release.