Schools

Chuck Schumer Engineers USDA Greek Yogurt Subsidy

The New York senator helps land a sweetheart deal for a politically-connect yogurt company.

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Starting this month, the United States Department of Agriculture has announced that it will test out a new product in school lunches—high-protein, a.k.a. Greek-style yogurt—in four different states. Yet, what seems like an innocuous, even reasonable addition to the menu of foods offered to American public school students upon inspection turns out to be the latest example of corrupt nanny-statism masquerading as "for the kids" do-goodism.

The USDA argues that Greek-style yogurt is better for kids because it has more protein. And given Michelle Obama's new National School Lunch program offerings required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a higher protein, lower-fat, and lower-sugar yogurt seems like it would be a good thing, full stop.

Here's the trouble.

Greek-style yogurt is more expensive than other comparably nutritious yogurts. The USDA has to pilot this program in only four states—New York, Arizona, Idaho, and Tennessee—because the bureaucrats don't know if they can get such a highly perishable item to schools that are situated further from the yogurt distribution centers. And most important, there is one particular state and one particular business that stand to benefit from a big increase in Greek yogurt sales. Those would be New York State, where most of this yogurt is produced and Chobani, which sells the most Greek-style yogurt in the U.S., is located. All of which explains why the biggest manufacturer of Greek-style yogurt spent tens of thousands on lobbyists and worked so closely with New York's Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer to try to get this pilot program off the ground.

And even Schumer himself admits the economic benefits are paramount to his involvement. Schumer called the pilot program "a boon for New York yogurt and dairy industries, and it's beneficial for the health of our kids." But any yogurt would be beneficial "for the health of our kids" because yogurt is generally a healthy food.

What's most nutritious isn't always most popular though is it? What is healthiest isn't always the most cost-effective, either. And as it turns out, the new diet for students buying the subsidized lunch is neither.

Last year, when the new, Michelle-Obama-inspired lunch menus were announced the USDA declared the new standards would "align school meals with the latest nutrition science and the real world circumstances of America's schools. These responsible reforms do what's right for children's health in a way that's achievable in schools across the nation."

Tell that to the school districts that have since tried and rejected the new standards. New York's Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake school district found that students hated the new menus and it cost the district an extra $100,000 to comply. "Students complained of being hungry with these lunches and the district lost money," assistant superintendent Chris Abdoo said in a statement. "I'm confident we can do better on our own next year."

A school district in Indiana lost $300,000 trying to follow the new lunch mandates. "[The USDA is] teaching our kids with this meal pattern that it's OK to throw away," food service director Lori Shofroth said. "We did a waste study on three different schools, and there was a huge amount of waste. That was just with produce, fruit or vegetables or milk."

Schools in California, Arizona, Texas, and Connecticut have also opted out for the same reasons. And as Baylen Linnekin pointed out back in September, masses of students at individual schools across the country rejected the one-size-fits-all-diet codified by these new rules. So why is the government introducing a more expensive Greek-style yogurt option when things already aren't going so well?

The answer is because a Democratic senator (Schumer) working with a successful and politically-correct business (Chobani) exerted as much pressure as they could on a willing USDA. Chobani spent at least $80,000 on lobbyists and that was after Schumer had started his Greek-yogurt campaign with the USDA. And remember too that Greek-style yogurt has already been touted as "one of the best private sector market opportunities upstate New York has seen in 30, 40 years," declared Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year. So of course he was happy about the USDA announcement. "It is a win-win for the state, exposing our students to a nutritional product and expanding the marketplace for Greek yogurt producers and suppliers in New York State," Cuomo said. About other private sector opportunities in New York, like say, extracting natural gas from the Southern Tier, well, he's been quite a bit more recalcitrant, with the moratorium on drilling remaining in place for more than half a decade.

Greek yogurt may be high in protein, but so are a lot of other, less expensive and less politically-connected food products. Adding Chobani to the school lunch program is just a fat-lot of government cronyism.