JOHNSTOWN - U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer on Monday used the Fage USA yogurt plant as a backdrop to urge the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revise federal School Lunch and Breakfast Program guidelines to make Greek yogurt a more affordable and nutritious option for schools.
He said Fage - started by a Greek business concern in 2005 at the Johnstown Industrial Park - would benefit greatly from his efforts to change the lunch guidelines.
"I want New York to milk the Greek yogurt boom for all it can," Schumer said at a press conference outside the plant.
Schumer noted 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," the senator said it will enable schools to better incorporate the food into their meal programs.
In addition to providing nutritious food in schools, he said the changing of federal guidelines also will allow sales of Fage yogurt to soar. Schumer said Fage's yogurt production is "one of the most important industries in New York state."
The company has already broken ground to build a $120 million expansion. Fage will build a 120,000-square-foot addition to its plant on Opportunity Drive and construct a new parking lot. The expansion also includes a whey pretreatment plant to be built on nearby property on Union Avenue.
Schumer said the company currently employs 240 people and wants to add another 150 people with the expansion.
The senator said New York's dairy farmers would also benefit from the plan, which involved sending a letter Monday to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He said the change can be made by him with a "stroke of a pen," and doesn't require congressional legislation.
Schumer stated "Greek yogurt is so new" that federal regulations "haven't caught up."
"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 schoolchildren and their school lunch and breakfast menus," Schumer said. "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.'"
Currently, the USDA regulations for the school lunch program, which were reworked earlier this year, require schools to offer a minimum amount of "meats/meat alternate" in school meals, the category that traditional yogurt falls into. Schumer said the yogurt guideline states that all yogurt, whether regular or Greek style, must be 4 ounces in net weight in order to be considered one serving of meat/meat alternate, and 8 ounces in net weight to be considered two 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 two times the amount of protein than other types of yogurt. For example, Schumer pointed to the fact that most 4-ounce Greek yogurts have 9 grams of protein, which is more than an 8-ounce regular yogurt at 6 grams of protein.
He said it makes "no economic sense" to continue regulations the way they are.
In his letter to Vilsack, Schumer wrote: "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."
Also speaking at Monday's press conference were Fage Plant Manager Ioannis Ravanis, New York Farm Bureau Public Affairs Manager Steve Ammerman, and Sandie Prokop, co-owner of Crossbrook Farms of Middleburgh.
Ammerman said the farm bureau supports Schumer's efforts to give school children "nutritional yogurt."
Prokop added, "This proposal just makes a lot of sense. Supply and demand, this is the way to do it."
Ravanis briefly addressed the faultering Greek economy, saying the expansion of the Johnstown plant will not be affected.
Schumer said that Fage "fully supports what we're doing" to change USDA guidelines.
Michael Anich covers Johnstown and Fulton County news. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.