USDA Approves Chobani Greek Yogurt as Meat Alternative in Public Schools
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Soon, kids will be able to choose yogurt as their protein and dairy portion of a healthy school meal.
In a bid to bring Greek yogurt to schools across the country, the USDA has selected Chobani for the job. Starting this fall, Chobani Greek yogurt will be available in public schools nationwide, and will serve as a protein alternative for students in K-12 public schools.The move follows a successful pilot program in schools across Idaho, New York, Arizona, and Tennessee, as well as the USDA’s April announcement that Greek yogurt will become a permanent part of the nationwide school lunch program.
"Most kids are only getting half of the recommended amount of dairy they need each day, so they’re missing out on getting the protein, calcium, and other nutrients they need for their health,” said Dr. Robert Post, senior director of nutrition and regulatory affairs at Chobani. “Greek yogurt is a great way to make sure that kids meet their nutritional needs, and Chobani’s participation in the first nationwide USDA school lunch program with yogurt allows us to help address this public health concern.”
Each cup of plain Chobani Greek yogurt contains 15 grams of protein, or about 30 percent of your recommended daily value. Chobani will be specifically distributing cups of blended 0 percent Greek Yogurt in blueberry, strawberry and vanilla varieties.
Here's some good news for any Idaho kid who has ever been suspicious of the rubbery chicken nuggets in the school cafeteria: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has selected Idaho as one of four states to participate in a pilot program allowing schools to serve Greek yogurt as a meat alternative for lunch.
Starting this fall, schools in Idaho, New York, Arizona and Tennessee will be able to purchase the trendy, protein-rich strained yogurt using cash subsidies from the federal school lunch program.
Back in January, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo asked the USDA to choose his state for a pilot program testing the marketability of Greek yogurt in schools. In an interview with The Inlander last month, Crapo touted the economic and nutritional benefits of increasing the state's production of Greek yogurt and adding it to cafeteria menus.
"That will increase the consumption of it, which will then necessarily increase the productions needs for our dairymen, and that ripples through the economy," Crapo said. "But I think the even bigger impact is the health impact for our kids and schools."
Idaho is home to Chobani’s Twin Falls plant, the largest Greek yogurt production facility in the world.
Government String Cheese
So last blog post covered some basics on what a commodity is but really didn’t answer any questions about what foods are selected to be provided to the schools, soup kitchens, institutions and individuals that received USDA foods. This answer really varies by program, but we’ll start with a bit of history. As mentioned in previous blog posts, historically the foods offered in commodity programs were items that were in surplus.
Early commodity programs were often buying up crops that are now heavily subsidized by the federal government like wheat and corn, in additional to food items that are prone to big up and down swings in production like fruit, vegetables and dairy. If you’ve grown a garden in the same spot year after and year or have a fruit tree in your yard your already wise to how much variability there can be in food production. During drought years fruits and vegetables get really scarce, on the other hand ideal weather conditions in other years can yield a bumper crop.
Nevada’s perennial bumper crop, the zucchini. Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/farmer-farmers-market-fresh-food-1869941/
By the 1950’s agriculture was starting to get more modernized and food production was moving towards certain crops dominating regions of the US. Wheat was largely produced in the rolling plains, tree fruit in the northwest, citrus in Florida, you get the picture. Improvements in infrastructure, transportation and food storage also made this possible. Crop yields were increasing, but if something substantial effected production like a late freeze or a regional drought, certain crops were scarce. When crop yields were high, or a bumper crop was produced the market would be flooded and prices would drop. And when prices dropped, farmers looked to large government buys to prop up prices and find a market for the surpluses.
Much of this system still stands today. In times of surplus, certain foods will be purchases in huge quantities by the federal government and distributed to USDA Foods programs. Up until about 3 years ago these foods, called “bonus” items would be made available to schools, soup kitchens and in some instances individuals who qualify for household food distribution programs. Now, these bonus items are only made available to soup kitchens, food banks and some household programs.
Greek yogurt as a USDA Food? Heck yes. Photo credit: https://www.thedailymeal.com/news/eat/usda-approves-chobani-greek-yogurt-meat-alternative-public-schools/063015
So what about all the commodity foods in schools? For the most part, the school districts choose what foods they want from a long list of the items available. In fact, it’s a federal requirement that at least once a year the list of foods available to distributed to all school districts. This list goes by a really creative name, the “USDA Foods Available” list. You can find this school year’s version here.
If you look on the list, you’ll see a pretty wide variety of foods there. USDA has put a tremendous amount of work into making these offerings more appealing and healthier. They put out a newsletter and you can view one of those here, which details their efforts to improve current items like frozen broccoli and introduce new ones like greek yogurt. The recent additions include easy to use but healthy frozen fruits and vegetables like butternut squash and blueberries, in additional to kid friendly but nutritious foods like fuji apples, brown rice and string cheese. They have also given the specifications (complex documents that list all the characteristics the products have to meet for USDA to accept them) a huge overhaul to not only make the foods more nutritious and lower in sodium, but to taste better and have a more consistent end product. I have personally eaten a lot these items and while some are not my favorite, (I HATE fruit cocktail of any sort, more on that later) some are really good like the greek yogurt.
So does that mean schools can order those items on demand, when ever they want? Short answer-no.
One of the big downfalls of this process is that USDA procures these items through a very, very cumbersome purchasing process. They use multi year contracts and ask school districts, via the State Agency charged with administering the program in their state, to tell them what foods they want. Here’s the catch—they need a year to two years of lead time to purchase those items. Basically, farmers want to know what to plant to meet school’s needs and that results in a long term commitment on the schools end to these food items. Some items that are quite as seasonally produced, like meat and dairy, can be ordered by schools quarterly but pretty much everything else requires at least a year’s worth of notice.
How many people know what meals they are going to prepare next week? Next month? Next year? It’s challenge.
Next post I’ll cover a complex topic about how USDA foods for schools get diverted to big food processors to be made into things like pizza and chicken nuggets. We’ll stay in the food realm, but we’re also going to include some business talk, hello vertical integration!
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Chicken Nugget Battle
Why are there so many processed foods served in school meals? This is a complicated question.
Anyone who has kids knows that it is a constant battle to try to get them to eat healthy foods. The pull of the processed foods is great. Many, many children in American have perfected the art of holding their parents hostage for dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets at dinner time.
A powerful bargaining chip, ketchup optional. Photo credit
Less healthy foods are cheap and quick to prepare, which for most Americans are the two most important factors impacting food choice. Thankfully, we’ve seen childhood obesity rates have leveled off and there have been a lot of positive changes in the food environment. A federal requirement to implement school wellness policies to reduce the availability of junk food in schools are starting to take hold and fast food chains are making improvements to child meals like smaller portions and making fruit a default side instead of fries. However, less healthy food choices remain popular and school cafeterias are no exception to those dynamics in food choice.
In addition to the challenge in getting kids to want to eat health foods, school don’t often have cooking equipment to prepare meals. Between aging schools built in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s that are now bursting at the seams with enrollments that are sometime triple the intended capacity and two recent recessions that let school districts with no money for construction or repairs, most elementary schools don’t have much more that refrigerator space and reheating oven.
This is the exact opposite of what most school kitchens look like. Photo credit
I’ve been in a lot of school kitchens and the only time I can recall seeing any sort of cooktop in an elementary school kitchen is in small rural communities. Most school kitchens are terribly outdated and woefully lacking the appropriate equipment needed to prepare scratch items.
What does this all result in? Sending USDA Foods items to a food processor to be made into processed items that can be easily reheated.
While the list of USDA Foods available includes some pretty healthy options, the vast majority of the foods offered are really ingredients, they are foods that will need to be incorporated into some sort of recipe, further cooked, or in some instances will need to be send to a food processor to be made into something that is ready to heat and eat. Schools can send USDA Foods items to processors for that item to be made into convenience items with a lower out of pocket costs than if they were to go out and have to buy them commercially. For example, a school district could send USDA Foods raw chicken to an approved processor to be made into chicken nuggets. The school district would only be charged an out of pocket cost for everything other than the value of the chicken, with for something like a chicken nugget is a significant portion of the cost. Schools often send higher value USDA Foods like meat, poultry and cheese to be further processed to get the biggest reduction in out of pocket cost on processed foods.
The further processing of USDA Food items is a pretty hotly debated topic in the school nutrition world. The federal regulations passed in 2010 were long over due and badly needed, and largely passed to combat the less desirable trends in school meals, specifically too much fat, salt and added sugar. It is important to note though that school meals have been shown to be healthier than lunches packed from home.
The most commonly included item in lunches back from home. Photo credit
Some theorized that the sodium restrictions being imposed on school meals were a back door way of limiting the amount of processed foods in school meals. Additionally, USDA provided a substantial amount of grant money for schools to use to purchase new equipment, theoretically to increase the capability to prepare meals from scratch. An amazing amount of school meal cookbooks were created all across the country, sharing recipes for some really outstanding, made from scratch school meals.
So is what is essentially a federal subsidy for the processed foods USDA seemed to be trying to eliminate of a benefit to anyone?
On one hand, these are foods that schools are going to be purchased anyway. And many would argue that we need to allow schools the flexibility to use the USDA Foods given in whatever way works best for them.
On the other hand, if we are trying to get more scratch meals in schools, should USDA look at limiting their processing program in favor of expanding options like DoD fresh, which allows schools to get fresh produce instead of the regularly offered USDA food items?
A thorny issue indeed. What options do you think would be serve kids nationwide?
By Rachel Marcus SYRACUSE (NCC NEWS) – New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo wants the U.S. Department of Agriculture to consider allowing the state to participate in a program that would get Greek yogurt into local schools.
The State Department of Agriculture and Markets, along with Cuomo, wants New York to be a part of the pilot program.
In a letter to the USDA, commissioner of the state department of agriculture Darrel Aubertine wrote: “Improving available quantities of strained Greek yogurt in school meals will allow schools to more affordably offer a meat alternative to vegetarians and culturally diverse groups.”
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The sport is easy to pick up, and one can get really good in as few as two or three years. Newbies and veterans dot the club’s list of members, and people continue to come back. They come back not just because of a love of the game, but because no two games are ever the same.
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As plant-based food gains traction, animal agriculture industries and lawmakers are responding to the perceived threat. A growing number of states have introduced legislation that would ban vegan products from being labeled “burger,” “sausage,” and more.
Arkansas made an attempt with Act 501, which would have forbidden this even with qualifies like “vegan” or “plant-based.”
Vegan meat brand Tofurky, the ACLU, the ACLU of Arkansas, GFI, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit last July, citing that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. A federal court blocked the law last December. The block will remain in effect as the lawsuit proceeds.
“Such a position requires the assumption that a reasonable consumer will disregard all other words found on the label. That assumption is unwarranted,” said U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker.
Similar laws are pending in Missouri and Mississippi. Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota have passed such laws. A federal bill, the Real Marketing Edible Artificial Edibles Truthfully Act of 2019, (aka The REAL Meat Act) was introduced last October.
Are “real” vegan dairy products the future?
From The Daily: “Aisle Be on the Safe Side”
School districts nationwide will be able to opt out of serving “pink slime,” after the USDA announced March 15 that beginning next fall, schools involved in the national school lunch program will have the option of avoiding the product.
From ABC News: “ Where to Get ‘Pink-Slime’- Free Beef “
1. Safeway “Safeway is committed to providing our customers with the highest-quality products. While the USDA and food industry experts agree that lean, finely textured beef is safe and wholesome, recent news stories have caused considerable consumer concern about this product. Safeway will no longer purchase ground beef containing lean, finely textured beef.”
2. Ahold (Stop & Shop/Giant) “Stores operated by the divisions of Ahold USA do carry ground beef made with Finely Textured Beef, although we are not purchasing any fresh ground beef that includes Finely Textured Beef produced using ammonium hydroxide. Finely Textured Beef is 100 percent lean beef and is absolutely safe for consumption. To make the product, beef companies use beef trimmings, which are the small cuts of beef that remain when larger cuts are trimmed down. These trimmings are USDA-inspected, wholesome cuts of beef. This process has been an industry standard for almost 20 years. Alternatives to the conventional ground beef supply, in the form of Certified Angus Beef and Nature’s Promise ground beef products, are available to customers in stores across the divisions of Ahold USA. These products do not include the use of Finely Textured Beef. Customers are being encouraged to ask any meat associate should they have any questions or would like to be directed to meat that does not include Finely Textured Beef. Our labeling is in compliance with USDA regulations. Finely Textured Beef is USDA tested and approved ground beef and therefore does not require labeling.”
3. Costco Costco told ABC News it does not use “pink slime.” “Anything that we sell at Costco we want to explain its origins, and I personally don’t know how to explain trim treated with ammonia in our ground beef,” Craig Wilson, vice president of quality assurance for Costco, told ABC News. “I just don’t know how to explain that. I’m not that smart.”
4. Publix “We have never allowed the use of LFTB (pink slime) in our meat. It’s 100 percent ground beef with no LFTB.”
5. H-E-B “All our ground beef sold at H-E-B is 100 percent pure with no additives.”
6. Whole Foods Whole Foods told ABC News it does not use pink slime.
7. Kroger “Kroger carries ground beef both with and without lean finely textured beef. For customers who choose to avoid it, we offer a variety of options including Kroger’s Private Selection Angus Ground Chuck, Round and Sirloin Private Selection All Natural Ground Beef and Private Selection Organic Ground Beef solid in 1 lb. packages, labeled 80 percent lean and above Laura’s Lean Ground Beef and ground beef prepared in store. All ground beef you find at your local Kroger is USDA-regulated, inspected and approved for food safety and quality. That includes beef products made with lean finely textured beef.”
8. Tops Markets Tops Markets told ABC News it does not use “pink slime.”
9. SUPERVALU “Effective today, SUPERVALU has made the decision to no longer purchase fresh ground beef containing finely textured beef for any of our traditional retail stores. These stores include Acme, Albertsons, Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Jewel-Osco, Lucky, Shaw’s/Star Market, Shop ‘n Save and Shoppers Food & Pharmacy. We are currently working with our suppliers to implement this change. While it’s important to remember there are no food safety concerns with products containing finely textured beef, this decision was made due to ongoing customer concerns over these products. All current beef products in our stores meet strict safety and quality standards approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”
10. Food Lion “Food Lion has made the decision to no longer carry fresh ground beef products that contain lean finely textured beef (LFTB) or boneless lean beef trimmings (BLBT) as a result of current consumer preferences and feedback. We are currently working with our suppliers on an immediate transition plan based on product availability. In the interim, we encourage customers who wish to purchase ground beef that does not contain LFTB or BLBT to choose our 80 percent lean ground beef, which we guarantee is free of LFTB or BLBT. While we understand that both the USDA and food industry experts agree that LFTB and BLBT are safe and nutritious, Food Lion is committed to offering high-quality, wholesome products for our customers based on their preferences.”
11. Walmart and Sam’s Club “We spend a lot of time listening to customers and adjusting our product assortment to ensure we have the right products at the right prices. Recently some customers have expressed concerns with lean finely textured beef (LFTB) and, while the USDA and experts agree that it is safe and nutritious, Walmart and Sam’s Club will begin offering fresh ground beef that does not contain LFTB. We’re committed to providing our customers with quality products at the right prices.”