Next week, some Tucson students will have a new option in the cafeteria. The Tucson Unified School District will swap out its regular yogurt for a Greek version as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program.
That’s almost 15,000 servings of yogurt a week, according to Lindsay Aguilar, a dietitian and interim administrative coordinator for the Food Services Department at TUSD.
Greek yogurt was previously out of reach for the large district, in part because of cost, which is about double the price of traditional yogurt on the grocery shelf.
“For us, it’s very exciting because it gives us the opportunity to expose the kids to something new,” Aguilar said. “Greek yogurt is, on the market price, more expensive than regular yogurt.”
The USDA will provide the yogurt to schools in Arizona, Idaho, New York and Tennessee until November. Schools need only pay for transportation costs, about $3 per case of yogurt.
State officials said the yogurt will be made available to every district. It is their choice whether to accept it. TUSD was the only Tucson district that confirmed for the Star it is definitely participating.
“We were fortunate to be one of the four states selected,” said Ellen Pimental, director of the Arizona Department of Education School Food Programs. “We’re excited about it because it seems like schools are excited.”
Pimental said every district in the state was notified about the program, and the first delivery will go out to 400 schools. If a school chooses not to accept the yogurt, it will be redistributed on a first- come, first-served basis.
At the end of the pilot, the USDA will collect surveys to evaluate the cost effectiveness of the program and determine whether it will continue.
While most types of yogurt are considered a healthy choice, Greek yogurt has about twice the protein of normal yogurt and often less fat and sugar. The 4-ounce cups available to students in the program will have 9 or 10 grams of protein depending on the flavor. That’s about 20 percent of the suggested daily serving.
“Protein fills you up and keeps you full longer, and with children that’s excellent because they’re always hungry,” said Deepika Laddu, a University of Arizona researcher in the Nutritional Sciences Department.
Greek yogurt also has a thicker, creamier consistency than normal yogurt because it’s strained several times, a texture that may appeal to kids.
“It’s definitely more rich tasting,” Laddu said. “It almost feels like they are getting something that they shouldn’t.”
Despite the prospective benefits, not every district plans to participate.
Flowing Wells Unified School District opted out of the program because of cost, said Carl Thompson, food service director for the district. Money that would have paid for Greek yogurt will go toward ensuring there are enough basic foods to last through the year.
Sunnyside Unified School District won’t receive the first shipment, but district spokeswoman Mary Veres said the district would participate if there were a yogurt surplus.
Laddu, who has studied childhood nutrition, said introducing kids to new healthy foods in school lunches is a small but positive step.
“For a lot of children, their primary meal is at school, especially if they’re in a lower socioeconomic class,” Laddu said. “ If they get into healthier lifestyle choices like eating Greek yogurt, it’s likely those behaviors will stay with them throughout adulthood.”