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Schumer wants federal school meal guidelines updated to level playing field for Greek Yogurt

By WKTV News

Standing at Chobani on Monday, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to revise the federal School Lunch and Breakfast Programs to make Greek yogurt a more affordable option for schools.

Current USDA regulations for public schools consider Greek yogurt to be the same as regular yogurt despite its higher protein content. By creating new guidelines for Greek yogurt that recognize its dense nutritional and high protein value, Schumer's push would enable schools to better incorporate the food into their meal programs.

Schumer's efforts would provide a boon for the largely New York-based Greek yogurt industry, including companies like Chobani. In addition to the extra business for New York Greek yogurt manufacturers, because Greek yogurt requires more milk than regular yogurt, New York's dairy farmers would also benefit from Senator Schumer's plan. In fact, Chobani uses an estimated three-million pounds of milk daily.

"Grocery shelves across Upstate New York and the country are filled to the brim with Greek yogurt, but unfortunately, despite their high protein and competitive cost, we can't say the same for New York school children and their school lunch and breakfast menus," said Schumer. "That is why I am launching a campaign to work with the USDA and local schools so that New York's meal programs can say they've 'Got Greek Yogurt.' With a stroke of a pen Secretary Vilsack could provide healthier foods for New York's school children and an economic boost for yogurt makers and dairy farmers, two of the state's most important industries."

Currently, the USDA regulations for the school lunch program, which were re-worked earlier this year, require schools to offer a minimum amount of "meats/meat alternate" in school meals, the category that traditional yogurt falls into. The yogurt guideline states that all yogurt, whether regular or Greek style, must be 4oz in net weight in order to be considered one serving of meat/meat alternate, and 8oz net weight to be considered 2 servings. Schumer stated that this single standard for all yogurts creates a serious issue for Greek yogurt, as these USDA guidelines do not account for the nutritional difference between regular and Greek yogurt that make Greek yogurt a more nutritionally dense product with over 2 times the amount of protein than other types of yogurt. For example, Schumer pointed to the fact that most 4 oz Greek yogurts have 9 grams of protein, which is more than an 8oz regular yogurt at 6 grams of protein.

For the launch of his push, Senator Schumer was joined by President and CEO of Chobani, Hamdi Ulukaya, Mayor of Norwich Joseph Maiurano, Mayor of the Village of New Berlin Terry Potter and Jennifer Tavaris from Commerce Chenango.

In New York, Greek yogurt isn't widely available under the school lunch program, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because the current nutrition standards do not treat it differently from regular yogurt despite its higher nutritional value. Therefore, these regulations only provide public schools the more costly choice of purchasing larger quantities of Greek yogurt than nutritionally necessary to meet serving requirements for meat alternatives.

Schumer highlighted that if the USDA updates its School Lunch and Breakfast Programs regulations to better reflect the protein content of Greek yogurt, it could provide school children with another healthy option while creating massive benefits to both New York dairy farmers and Greek yogurt producers like Chobani. New York's dairy farmers are among the biggest beneficiaries of an increased demand in Greek yogurt, as it takes significantly more milk to make Greek yogurt than regular yogurt. For example, Chobani takes in about three million pounds of milk a day, which it uses to make a million pounds of yogurt. Chobani, currently employs 900 people in New York, and is expected to add about 100 more workers. Schumer stated that if the USDA were to make Greek yogurt a more affordable option for schools, then demand for Greek yogurt could increase significantly, which would require more milk from New York dairy farmers. Schumer noted that New York school officials are highly supportive of his initiative. Currently, a key barrier to adding Greek yogurt to menus in New York is cost. Because Greek yogurt costs more per ounce than regular yogurt, many schools have found that it is not an economical choice to purchase the standard portion size required for regular yogurt at the higher cost associated with Greek yogurt. Therefore, Schumer is urging the USDA to develop specific school lunch program guidelines for Greek yogurt, and highlighted the precedent of tofu as a recent example of a high-protein meat alternative that the USDA determined warranted its owns standards. By ensuring that USDA school lunch requirements better reflect the now widely available New York-made Greek yogurt and its nutritional value, schools could be able to purchase smaller, less costly servings of Greek yogurt, incorporate the food into their breakfast and lunch programs and still meet protein requirements.

"Providing Greek-style yogurt in our schools is a win-win-win that provides a healthy food for our kids, supports our family dairy farmers and boosts New York's upstate economy," said Schumer.
In his letter, Schumer wrote: "If USDA were to create a standard for Greek yogurt that recognizes it as a more protein dense food and creates a serving size that reflects its higher protein content, it could become easier for school lunch programs to incorporate it into their meals."

A full copy of Senator Schumer's letter to the USDA appears below:

Dear Secretary Vilsack,

I write to urge you to consider the appropriate role of Greek yogurt in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. Greek yogurt is a highly nutritious product that has recently become an overwhelmingly popular healthy food staple for millions of Americans. However, it is not widely purchased by school lunch programs in New York because it costs too much compared to the amount of protein it is credited for. For these reasons, I ask that you consider creating a standard for authentic Greek yogurt and including it in the guidelines for our nation's school meal program

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger Free Act, which required USDA to update its meal patterns and nutrition standards for the school lunch and breakfast programs. I appreciate the great progress that your agency has made so far in increasing the nutritional standards for the food choices which we provide our school children. Because of your efforts, American school children will benefit from more healthful school meals. Included in these guidelines were newly created definitions for tofu and "whole grain" products, which will allow school food associations to more easily integrate these products into their programs. Creating a standard for Greek yogurt and incorporating it into the school lunch program as a high-protein meat alternative would allow school lunch programs to more easily add Greek yogurt to their meals alongside these and other healthy foods.

As you may know, Greek yogurt is high in protein and low in sodium. In addition, many lines are free of artificial additives and allergens such as soy, nuts and gluten. In order for it to be authentic, the process must include certain straining and separation techniques that are unique to Greek yogurt and result in its high protein content. Producing Greek yogurt is a very different process than that of traditional yogurt, requiring nearly three to four times the amount of milk, slightly increasing its cost to the consumer. However, in many instances, Greek yogurt contains double the amount of protein compared to traditional yogurt. Therefore, I encourage you to look at these factors in considering a standard for Greek yogurt and appropriate serving sizes for school meals. I have heard from school meal providers in my state that current standards for yogurt make Greek yogurt cost prohibitive because it only qualifies as 1 meat/meat alternative when, in fact, the protein content of the item is much greater than that of traditional yogurt. If USDA were to create a standard for Greek yogurt that recognizes it as a more protein dense food and creates a serving size that reflects its higher protein content, it could become easier for school lunch programs to incorporate it into their meals.

In closing, I again ask that you consider this proposal and look forward to working with you and your staff to promote the health of our nation's school children.

Sincerely,

Charles E. Schumer
U.S. Senator

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