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Is it Science or Lobbyists? Why Will Greek Yogurt be in School Lunches?

Is it Science or Lobbyists? Why Will Greek Yogurt be in School Lunches?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recently announced a Greek yogurt school lunch pilot program in four states—news making some parents happy and making others angry.

In just the past few years, Greek yogurt has risen to food stardom in the U.S. and has been touted as a healthy, high-protein food. LiveStrong states, “One cup of plain, low-fat conventional yogurt usually contains five to 10 grams of protein, where Greek yogurt averages about 13 to 20 grams of protein.” The website also mentions that Greek yogurt is low in sodium and carbohydrates and is easy to digest, as compared to traditional yogurts. Many other sources praise the weight loss properties of Greek yogurt as well.

But is Greek yogurt really such a healthy choice? It seems to be a good fit for Michelle Obama’s new National School Lunch program offerings as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 since it’s a higher protein, lower-fat and lower-sugar yogurt, reports Reason.com.

Yet the Greek yogurt being proposed for the nationally subsidized school lunch program is not the Greek yogurt admired for its many benefits—it’s simply Greek-style yogurt.

Traditional Greek yogurt, which has been studied and proven to have health benefits, is strained three times and is a full-fat variety whereas most Greek-style yogurt on the market now is only strained once and contains zero fat, offering little of Greek yogurt’s reported health benefits.

Moreover, anyone knowledgeable about factory farming and the downside of diary knows that dairy-based yogurt is not necessarily better for one’s health and is certainly not the best choice for the environment and the animals involved in the industry.

What’s even more perplexing about the USDA’s new pilot program is how it actually came about. The yogurt company to be chosen for the program has yet to be determined but will be soon when competing firms propose different versions of what they would serve to students, according to NY Daily News.

There is one company though, that already has a high stake in the program and that’s the largest Greek yogurt producer in the U.S., Chobani, a billion-dollar company owned by Hamdi Ulukaya.

The program rollout will start in just four states, Arizona, Idaho, New York and Tennessee, which are said to represent different regions of the country, according to The Hill. These states were also chosen due to their close proximity to yogurt manufacturers as yogurt is a highly perishable item. Interestingly, two of the states—New York and Idaho—are home to major Chobani factories.

What’s more, Chobani has made a significant financial investment to be at the forefront of this new program and potentially come out as the victor. The New York-based company has already paid $80,000 to Cornerstone Government Affairs to lobby Congress on its behalf. Among its lobbyists are former agricultural department employees.

The lobbying firm was also hired following New York Senator Charles Schumer’s petition to the USDA asking that Greek yogurt be added school lunch program.

The decision on Greek yogurt came rather quickly—in just eight months—although the agriculture department typically takes years to assess a new product. “The tofu industry waited a decade before an ok,” reports NY Daily News.

Senator Schumer also worked with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to push the Greek yogurt pilot program through. Both senators see it as a win-win—for the children and the diary industry.

The financial benefit has the potential to be quite considerable for New York in particular. Five years ago, the New York dairy industry was producing barely any revenue. Now it generates almost 40 percent of the $6.5 billion in U.S. yogurt sales annually. Businessweek magazine has even called upstate New York “the Silicon Valley of yogurt.”

While the yogurt company approved for the pilot program will soon be revealed, the USDA will conduct another review later this year to see if the program is ultimately cost effective.

The USDA’s new Greek yogurt pilot program appears to be a win in favor of children’s health, yet it also seems to be entwined with the interests of the Greek yogurt industry.

Image source: Mr. T in DC/ Flickr

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