Pizza Counts as a Vegetable? How the Spending Bill in Congress Could Unravel Progress

November 15, 2011

by Mark Bishop, vice president of policy and communications This week Congress is supposed to vote on a spending bill to keep the government running, a bill that because of last-minute additions now contains language that allows pizza to be counted as a vegetable in a school lunch.

In this good AP article about the bill, the reality reads a bit like a bad joke: a frozen pizza maker, a salt producer and a french fry walk into a school cafeteria. . . but this is not funny:

The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year. These include limiting the use of potatoes on the lunch line, putting new restrictions on sodium and boosting the use of whole grains. The legislation would block or delay all of those efforts.

The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now….

Nutritionists say the whole effort is reminiscent of the Reagan administration’s much-ridiculed attempt 30 years ago to classify ketchup as a vegetable to cut costs. This time around, food companies that produce frozen pizzas for schools, the salt industry and potato growers requested the changes and lobbied Congress.

I’m stunned, and I honestly don’t know where to start. So how about a quick reminder of the good old days,  back two years ago when the Institute of Medicine announced — without a great deal of controversy — science-based recommendations for improving school food and improving the health of our nation’s children. The recommendations included things like serving students a greater variety of vegetables and more whole grains while cutting back on sodium. The consensus was that this was a thoughtful report and that changes in line with these recommendations would support parents’ efforts to feed their kids well-balanced meals. We all knew that getting to the implementation stage would not be without challenges, but it was good to see that school nutrition standards would be updated with what amounted to science-backed common sense. Ah, the good old days.

Back to today. We’re now facing a policy decision that has replaced science-backed common sense with the assertion that pizza ought to count as a vegetable when it’s served to schoolchildren.

(Side note: we’re not even talking about whole-grain pizza loaded with veggie toppings! We’re talking about frozen cheese pizza with tomato paste.)

If you want to take a look at the bill’s language, go for it, but the main takeaway is this: our Congressional leaders are on a fast track to overrule nutrition science in favor of political expediency. This is a dangerous precedent to set and not good public policy.

We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The USDA is planning on releasing their nutrition standards for competitive school foods (food sold outside the school lunch program, such as in vending machines or school stores) this winter, and we need to let Congress know that these standards must prioritize kid’s health and nutrition science.