Pizza Is a Vegetable and Other Congressional Revelations

School NutritionIt was a close call. Schoolchildren almost had access to more nutritious school lunches, but Congress put a stop to that.

From H.R. 2112:

Division A, Title VII, Sec 735 (p83 in the pdf)

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule that โ€“

  1. sets any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs established under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act (42 U.S.C. 1751 et seq.) and by section 4 of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (42 U.S.C. 1773); or
  2. is inconsistent with the recommendations of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans for vegetables.

The USDA had proposed new nutrition standards for school lunches that included ยพ cup of vegetables per day for grades K-8 and 1 cup of vegetables per day for grades 9-12. The vegetables were specifically supposed to include at least ยฝ cup each of dark green vegetables, orange vegetables, and legumes.

No Limits on Starchy Vegetables

The only type of vegetables limited were the starchy vegetables and they were limited to 1 cup per week.ย  I’m sure you can see the problem already.

This rule would severely curtail the amount of succotash served in public schools. We can’t have that now, can we?

The limit on starchy vegetables is also a problem for the potato industry. Nearly 300 million pounds of potatoes are sold to schools each year โ€“ a little over 1% of all potatoes sold in the United States. The minute the USDA published their proposed guidelines, the industry lobbyists went to work.

More Salt, Less Whole Grains

The potato industry wasn’t the only group to get changes legislated. Salt was also supposed to be reduced over the next ten years.

That’s way too fast for some people, so now they get more time, although the targets of less than 640 mg daily for grades K-5, less than 710 mg daily for grades 6-8, and less than 740 mg daily for grades 9-12 are apparently still in place.

Another requirement in the new guidelines โ€“ increasing whole grains to more than half of all grains served โ€“ is also being delayed. Originally, the whole grains were to be phased in within five years.

Congress and New Math

The strangest one that got through is the tomato paste rule, thanks to frozen food industry lobbying. Using special pizza math, two tablespoons of tomato paste on a slice of pizza counts as a ยฝ cup serving of vegetables.

Two tablespoons of tomato paste contains 26 calories, 10% of the daily value of vitamin A, and 12% of the daily value of vitamin C.

A ยฝ cup serving of raw tomatoes contains 16 calories (yes, fewer calories than the tomato paste), 15% of the daily value of vitamin A, and 19% of the daily value of vitamin C.

The Free Market Rules…Or Not

The reasoning given for the changes to the USDA’s attempt at improving school lunches is โ€œ…to prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations and to provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals…โ€ in schools.

As Americans in general have been looking for healthier foods in the last several years, food companies have tried to reformulate their processed foods to appeal to health-conscious consumers.ย  Many school districts have also followed the trend and improved their school lunch offerings. The USDA’s guidelines would have pushed the ones that are lagging behind to feed the children better.

In one swoop, Congress successfully defended the taxpayers’ right to buy fast food for schoolchildren and prevented several food industries from feeling a slap from the invisible hand of the free market.

More on School Nutrition

Image of pizza by rob_rob2001, used with Creative Commons license.

Image of succotash by the bitten word, used with Creative Commons license.

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13 thoughts on “Pizza Is a Vegetable and Other Congressional Revelations”

  1. This is very sad. I read elsewhere about the “pizza is a vegetable” revelation, Googled it, and found your article here. While that’s a sad comparison, the whole story is just awful. Basically, we’ll just be feeding our kids french fries for the next decade.

    Ugh… thanks for the great summary, though. Can’t do anything if you don’t know!

    1. Harold,

      The current rule, put in place by the USDA, says that 2 tablespoons of paste equals a serving of vegetables.

      The USDA is trying to change that so that 1/2 cup of tomato paste counts as a 1/2 cup of vegetables, but Congress pushed back.

  2. I refuse to shove a piece of pizza down their throats and call it a vegetable. It’s bullshit. My kids and I know better and that’s what matters. My 5 year old called this whole situation silly! All I can do is keep doing what I have been and sending him to school with his lunch

  3. I’m a chef and recipe developer and I’ve been working with public schools to revamp their lunch menus to focus more on healthy, homemade, and kid-friendly foods. I’ve had tons of success with keeping food costs to a minimum while still dramatically improving the quality. What’s most critical–and what no one is talking about through this whole pizza-vegetable debate–is how little faith we have in our kids’ ability to choose and enjoy healthy foods. We also don’t give the lunch ladies in our lives enough credit for how talented they’re able to be when given the chance to be chefs, rather than box-opening robots. Check out this fruit and veggie-loaded meal I developed and we prepared for less than $1.50 a serving, and maybe you’ll see what’s possible with a little effort and vision. The bottom line is that it’s about more than what is or isn’t a vegetable…it’s about having more respect for the foods we’re willing to serve, the people who prepare them, and the kids who eat them.

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