The U.S. Department of Agriculture is launching a pilot program that could place Greek yogurt in school cafeterias across the country by April as a protein, or meat alternative, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Wednesday.
The commitment marks a victory for Schumer, who petitioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last June to add Greek yogurt to the list of proteins that meet the USDA's school lunch standards. The move would also provide a boost for dairy and Greek yogurt producers in New York like Chobani and Fage. Currently approved school meat substitutes include nuts, tofu, beans, cheese and eggs.
Kevin Concannon, USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, notified Schumer of the agency's decision in a letter Wednesday. The USDA will research vending opportunities and school interest in the coming weeks.
"Soon, New York-made, healthy and protein-rich Greek yogurt could be what's for lunch in schools across New York and even the country," Schumer said in a statement Wednesday. "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.”
The New York senator, who led the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, also served Chobani and Fage Greek yogurts at the inaugural luncheon earlier this month.
Greek, or strained, yogurt is known for a higher protein content than regular American yogurt. This year's new healthy school lunch guidelines, backed by Vilsack and first lady Michelle Obama, require between 8 and 12 ounces of protein in K-12 school lunches. The protein and grain limits were lifted in December, however, following extensive backlash from students who complained of being hungry.
"The list of USDA food product offerings is routinely updated, with new and more healthful products added every year," Concannon wrote in his letter, which was released as part of Schumer's statement. "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.''
Vilsack also announced Wednesday that the USDA will soon release a long-awaited set of guidelines for healthy school snacks as the agency continues its most sweeping overhaul of school food in more than 30 years.