USDA OKs Greek yogurt for school lunch pilot program

David Paulin
First, Michelle Obama called for healthier school lunches -- and kids complained that the first lady's menus left them hungry. Now, the United States Department of Agriculture has green-lighted a pilot program to serve trendy Greek yogurt in school cafeterias in New York, Idaho, Arizona, and Tennessee. If all goes well this fall, Greek yogurt may became a staple in Washington's $11 billion school lunch program in some 100,000 schools.

In one sense, it's an example of America's growing European Union-style nanny state -- not to mention crony capitalism and insider influence. Two of the biggest cheerleaders of Greek yogurt are New York's Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; and there also are Greek yogurt's powerful Washington lobbyists, including two former high-ranking USDA officials. They were hired by Greek yogurt maker Chobani which was founded in upstate New York by Hamdi Ulukaya -- a Turkish immigrant with business and yogurt-making savvy (he's now a billionaire) who knows how to pull the levers of power to become even richer. Interestingly, Greek yogurt -- perhaps with a wink from the first lady -- got on the USDA's fast track (eight months from start to finish) rather than plodding through an approval process that, according to Washington insiders, can take years for the school lunch program.

"This is unusual, it happened very fast," Jerry Hagstrom, a veteran Washington journalist and expert on the USDA, told the New York Daily News, which recently revealed eyebrow-raising details of the push to get Greek yogurt in the nation's schools, including through Sen. Schumer's high-pressure lobbying at the USDA.

"I remember only one thing vaguely similar, involving serving bison meat on Indian reservations," Hagstrom said.

Chobani and other Greek yogurt makers, for their part, recently presented the USDA with proposals about what they'd serve, but the winners have yet to be announced. New York stands to be a big winner, for it ranks as nation's biggest yogurt producer. Red-state Idaho has a Chobani plant in Twin Falls, so it also will share in the spoils, thanks in part to cheerleading from Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican. "I commend the USDA for choosing to implement this pilot program for Greek yogurt in Idaho schools," he said. "Greek yogurt is one of the country's fastest growing industries, and I hope USDA will continue the important process of making this healthy food option increasingly available to young Americans."

Well, pork is pork whether it's from Democratic or Republican lawmakers, right?

Along with this story of crony capitalism, insider influence, and EU-style edicts concerning what consumers should eat, is whether school kids will actually like Greek yogurt.

Some observers point out that Greek yogurt has  become popular among adults -- not kids. Adults like its slightly bitter taste and fact that it has lower fat and higher levels of protein than regular yogurt. But kids aren't that health-conscious and prefer treats that are sweet.

Oh well, even if school kids hate Greek yogurt and feel they're getting porked by the feds (so to speak) there will nevertheless be winners in this latest episode of Obama-era largess toward favored industries. Those winners will be lobbyists for Greek yogurt and their friends in Washington. 

First, Michelle Obama called for healthier school lunches -- and kids complained that the first lady's menus left them hungry. Now, the United States Department of Agriculture has green-lighted a pilot program to serve trendy Greek yogurt in school cafeterias in New York, Idaho, Arizona, and Tennessee. If all goes well this fall, Greek yogurt may became a staple in Washington's $11 billion school lunch program in some 100,000 schools.

In one sense, it's an example of America's growing European Union-style nanny state -- not to mention crony capitalism and insider influence. Two of the biggest cheerleaders of Greek yogurt are New York's Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand; and there also are Greek yogurt's powerful Washington lobbyists, including two former high-ranking USDA officials. They were hired by Greek yogurt maker Chobani which was founded in upstate New York by Hamdi Ulukaya -- a Turkish immigrant with business and yogurt-making savvy (he's now a billionaire) who knows how to pull the levers of power to become even richer. Interestingly, Greek yogurt -- perhaps with a wink from the first lady -- got on the USDA's fast track (eight months from start to finish) rather than plodding through an approval process that, according to Washington insiders, can take years for the school lunch program.

"This is unusual, it happened very fast," Jerry Hagstrom, a veteran Washington journalist and expert on the USDA, told the New York Daily News, which recently revealed eyebrow-raising details of the push to get Greek yogurt in the nation's schools, including through Sen. Schumer's high-pressure lobbying at the USDA.

"I remember only one thing vaguely similar, involving serving bison meat on Indian reservations," Hagstrom said.

Chobani and other Greek yogurt makers, for their part, recently presented the USDA with proposals about what they'd serve, but the winners have yet to be announced. New York stands to be a big winner, for it ranks as nation's biggest yogurt producer. Red-state Idaho has a Chobani plant in Twin Falls, so it also will share in the spoils, thanks in part to cheerleading from Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican. "I commend the USDA for choosing to implement this pilot program for Greek yogurt in Idaho schools," he said. "Greek yogurt is one of the country's fastest growing industries, and I hope USDA will continue the important process of making this healthy food option increasingly available to young Americans."

Well, pork is pork whether it's from Democratic or Republican lawmakers, right?

Along with this story of crony capitalism, insider influence, and EU-style edicts concerning what consumers should eat, is whether school kids will actually like Greek yogurt.

Some observers point out that Greek yogurt has  become popular among adults -- not kids. Adults like its slightly bitter taste and fact that it has lower fat and higher levels of protein than regular yogurt. But kids aren't that health-conscious and prefer treats that are sweet.

Oh well, even if school kids hate Greek yogurt and feel they're getting porked by the feds (so to speak) there will nevertheless be winners in this latest episode of Obama-era largess toward favored industries. Those winners will be lobbyists for Greek yogurt and their friends in Washington.