By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Greek yogurt will be showing up in school cafeterias this year thanks to a USDA pilot program announced July 8.
The pilot program will take place in Idaho, New York, Arizona, and Tennessee, with USDA opening a solicitation to vendors to supply state orders in its announcement.
The pilot program is the result of petitions and requests from Idaho and New York legislators to USDA to recognize the nutritional value of Greek yogurt in its MyPlate nutrition guidelines and to launch a school lunch pilot program.
USDA did both, allowing Greek yogurt in the school lunch program for the four states, said Lindsay Nothern, press secretary for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Greek yogurt is being allowed because of its protein content, and school districts in the four states now have the choice to include it in their lunch program, he said.
That's good news for Idaho's dairy industry and Chobani Greek yogurt company, which began production at its new plant in Twin Falls last November. Chobani also operates a Greek yogurt plant at its headquarters in New Berlin, N.Y.
Part of the reason Crapo pushed for USDA's recognition of Greek yogurt was to bolster the economic viability of Idaho's dairy industry. But the product is also popular with children and makes for a more nutritional offering than some other foods students might be selecting, Nothern said.
Chobani will put in a bid for a USDA contract, but other brands that use Idaho products are eligible as well, he said.
Idaho Dairymen's Association views USDA's pilot program and Idaho's inclusion is the program as "absolutely excellent," said Bob Naerebout, IDA executive director.
And with other segments of Idaho's dairy industry selling ingredients to other yogurt companies, the impact will be bigger than just Chobani, he said.
In addition, if things go well, USDA could expand the offering of Greek yogurt in school programs nationwide and could do so even before this school year is finished, he said.
Capital Press is waiting on a response from Chobani, but at a press conference at the Twin Falls Chobani plant in late May, Chobani's milk procurement manager, Terra Jackson, said Chobani's production in Idaho will be huge if the pilot program is approved.
"Our need for milk will increase significantly," she said.
The Twin Falls plant is producing almost 1 million cases of Greek yogurt a week and has production lines waiting to commit, she said in May.
At that time, the plant was processing 2 million pounds of milk a day but has the capacity to process 10 million pounds a day, Chobani CFO Jim McConeghy said at the press conference.
Jan Rogers, executive director of Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization, is hopeful that Chobani will get a contract for the school lunch program. But, he said, it's more about providing a healthy alternative for school children and growing the category of Greek yogurt.
The fact of the matter is there's a number of Greek yogurt companies in the country that will likely be involved in the bidding process. At the end of the day, it's not just about Chobani, she said
Crapo's staff is sorting through the details of the pilot program and will be working with school districts and state officials, Nothern said.
He said he doesn't have an estimate on how much yogurt the pilot program might involve but it's obviously substantial.
Beyond the school market, the pilot program will also give a great deal of exposure to the product, with students likely to bring their preference home to the family, he said.
Bids are due by July 22 with awards to be announced by the end of July.