Federal legislators say a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program to bring protein-rich Greek yogurt to New York's schools could be a boon for the state's dairy industry in New York.
New York joins Tennessee, Idaho and Arizona as participants in the USDA program designed to test the cost-effectiveness of purchasing Greek yogurt on behalf of schools operating in the National School Lunch Program. The federal agency intends to buy upward of 199,800 gallons of Greek yogurt to start the program, which starts in September and continues through November.
“Starting this school year, students across the state will be balancing New York-made Greek yogurt on their lunch trays,” said U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer. “I am thrilled that New York schools will have a chance to participate in the first-ever Greek yogurt pilot program in September.”
Likewise, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand lauded the state being among those testing the program as a win for New York’s dairy industry. She said the state is a natural fit for the program, because of its growing Greek yogurt manufacturing sector.
“Our dairy industry is vital to New York state,” she said. “This program will provide healthy meals to students and create jobs for our community.”
New York leads the nation in Greek yogurt production. If the pilot program is successful, the state’s Greek yogurt businesses could ultimately be the main supplier for a school lunch program that feeds roughly 31 million students per month across the country.
In the Capital Region, the program could mean more business for Fage USA Dairy, a Greek yogurt manufacturer located at the Johnstown Industrial Park in Fulton County. Already, Fage is planning a massive expansion of its 220,000-square-foot facility that will allow it to double annual production to 160,000 tons of yogurt.
A spokesman with the company did not return a call for comment Monday.
Schumer initially made a pitch to use Greek yogurt as part of the school lunch program during a visit to Fage in June 2012. At the time, Schumer was calling on the USDA to change guidelines that would allow districts to buy smaller serving sizes of the yogurt because it includes a greater amount of protein.
In April, state Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Darrel J. Aubertine issued a letter to the USDA describing New York as the right place to pursue the pilot program because of its robust yogurt production and dairy industry.
New York’s yogurt plants saw more than a doubling in production over the past five years. Milk production for yogurt manufacturing jumped from 158 million pounds to 1.2 billion pounds over the same time period.
“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,” Aubertine wrote in the letter.
As part of the program, the USDA is soliciting companies that can produce both 4 oz. single serving containers of flavored yogurt and 32 oz. containers of plain yogurt with bids due back by late July. The intention is to provide schools with a variety of ways of serving the product.
The USDA will evaluate the cost-effectiveness by December and then determine next steps for the pilot. If successful, the program could become a permanent part of the 180-plus food items that the USDA offers to purchase for schools
“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,” Schumer said.