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The Other White Meat: Yogurt in the Lunchroom

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Washington

Move over cheeseburgers, fried chicken, and pizza. Yogurt may be moving up the food pyramid.

Available in school cafeterias for years, yogurt is currently considered a mere a la carte snack, or in rather uncomplimentary official terminology, an "uncredited food."

But under a proposal now before the Department of Agriculture, 4 ounces of yogurt would satisfy 1 ounce of the meat/meat-alternate requirement for the national school-lunch program and other federally sponsored meals. The change would grant meal planners another low-fat alternative to the fatty foods that have dominated plastic cafeteria trays for years and confer new clout on fermented milk.

Good, and Good for You

Nutritionists and child-health advocates, who assail school lunches for their often high-fat, high-calorie content, are hailing the proposal.

Melody Tersinger, a dietitian at the Children's National Medical Center here, said the measure shows school meals are "finally changing for the better."

Low-fat yogurt, she said, is "nutrient dense" and can be an especially good option for children with weight and cholesterol problems or with a lactose intolerance. And though the USDA does not recognize such claims, yogurt advocates boast that its live and active bacteria cultures can aid digestion, boost immunities, and even stave off cancer.

Yogurt manufacturers, not surprisingly, are elated at the prospect of reaching millions of potential young yogurt consumers--25 million students in the nation's school-lunch program alone.

Anna Moses feels especially good about the proposed rule. "Yogurt is such a healthful product, and kids really like it," Ms. Moses said.

She is a spokeswoman for the Dannon Co., a leading yogurt maker based in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Until the Cows Come Home

Several times since 1985, the USDA has considered proposals to upgrade yogurt's status. But each was rebuffed because of questions about its cost, sugar content, or its lack of iron.

But now, officials are confident they won't have to wait until the cows come home to grant yogurt its meat-alternate status--a designation already held by cheese.

New USDA guidelines emphasize the nutritional value in school meals, rather than fitting items into specific food categories like meat, dairy, and the like.

"Yogurt meets nutritional standards and gives schools more flexibility and more options," said Phil Shanholtzer, a USDA spokesman.

"We're going forward with this, and are confident this will soon be a reality," he said.

The USDA will accept comments on the yogurt proposal through Aug. 19.

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