WASHINGTON, D.C. – New York yogurt manufacturer Chobani just landed a massive U.S. Department of Agriculture contract for school lunches after years of lobbying lawmakers and President Obama on its products.
The upstate-New York Greek yogurt maker will be distributing its products to schools nationwide next year as a USDA-approved meat substitute for school lunches, capping off a pilot program in a dozen states made possible by extensive lobbying efforts.
Chobani Greek Yogurt first gained approval by the USDA for school lunches in 2013 as part of a pilot program after U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer and other New York lawmakers pressured USDA officials to include it in a pilot program for four states. The USDA’s typically years-long approval process for new products was miraculously slashed to only about 8 months for Chobani.
That pilot program was expanded last year to a dozen states after reportedly positive feedback from students, Syracuse.com reports.
“After at least three calls from the persistent senator, (U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom) Vilsack helped arranged a Sept. 20, 2012 meeting in Schumer’s Capitol Hill office with Kevin Concannon, the key official for food, nutrition and consumer services,” the New York Daily News reports.
Chobani owner Hamdi Ulukaya was also named by President Obama as a “Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship,” which included a “closed-press” meeting with the president at the White House, according to the Daily Sabah.
The special treatment was undoubtedly the result of Ulukaya’s savvy political sense.
According to a Green Monsters! blog about the original pilot program:
… 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.”
So, after a couple of years of lobbying and a pilot test program, Chobani – the top selling Greek yogurt brand in the U.S. – landed a contract for schools in all 50 states in April. The initial contract is worth $148,019 for the first two months of the 2015-16 school year, Syracuse.com reports.
The government will then seek quarterly bids for the remainder of the school year.
Chobani’s fast-track to school cafeterias across the U.S. – with a contract awarded faster than other companies have even gained approval for their products – raises the same question Green Mosters! blogger Kristina Pepelko first raised in 2013: is the National School Lunch Program and the tightened restrictions on school food truly designed to produce healthier students, or are special interest lobbyists driving menu recommendations from Washington, D.C.?
Chobani’s senior director of nutrition and regulatory affairs, Robert Post, obviously wants the public to believe it’s the former.
“This is an important step that Chobani is taking in its continued mission to bring nutritious, delicious and natural food to all people of all ages,” he said in a statement.
“Allowing children to have healthy and delicious options for their lunch tray ingredients is one of the most important things Chobani can do as a company, and we decided to offer out products at significantly reduced prices as we want to extend our mission beyond our cups and into the communities we live in,” Post said.
Chobani officials have not disclosed the “significantly reduced prices” for their products, or the potential value of the new government contract, Syracuse.com reports.