Congressman Jared Polis Revisits “School Food Pizza = Vegetable”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 16, 2012

One of the most dismaying aspects of the recent passage of new federal school meal standards was the collective caving by Congress to pressure from various food manufacturers seeking to protect profits.

The most notorious of these episodes was the fight over the continued classification of pizza as a school food vegetable.  To recap:  a quirk in prior regulations allowed schools to count pizza as a school meal vegetable serving due to the nutritional content of the tomato paste.   When the USDA, following a sensible recommendation from the Institute of Medicine, sought to change that rule, huge food companies like Schwan and ConAgra – major producers of frozen pizza for the National School Lunch Program — went into high gear and successfully lobbied against the change. (More background here and here.)  It was a stark, depressing demonstration of the power of corporate interests versus children’s health.

But based on conversations I’d had with a source on the Hill, I noted in my last post on “pizza = vegetable” that the battle was lost but the war was not necessarily over:  the agricultural spending bill which gutted the pizza rule will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, i.e, September, 2012, creating an opportunity to revisit the issue.

Well, it looks like Congressman Jared Polis (D-Co) is seeking to take advantage of that window.  He’s just introduced new legislation, cleverly named the SLICE Act (School Lunch Improvements for Children’s Education) which, according to his website, would seek to:

implement healthful standards to pizza in public schools in three significant ways:

  • Allow the USDA to accurately count 1/8 of a cup of tomato paste as 1/8 of a cup, instead of half of a cup, which qualifies pizza as a vegetable;
  • Allow the USDA to implement science-based sodium reduction targets; and,
  • Allow the USDA to set a whole grain requirement.

Given the demonstrated, unstoppable power of the food lobby to quash even the most modest anti-obesity efforts over the last few years (and if you haven’t read the Reuters article referenced in the foregoing hyperlink, I urge you to do so), I have no reason to believe this bill will be any more successful than the last attempt to change this outmoded rule.

But hey, a school food blogger can dream.

And, regardless, kudos to Rep. Polis for keeping the issue alive and reminding us that:

Agribusinesses should never dictate the quality of school meals. . . .Big food companies have their priorities, which include selling cheap, unhealthy foods at high profits. But parents and schools have their priorities; making sure our kids eat right because research shows a clear connection between nutrition and student performance in school.

Amen.

 

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Maggie May 16, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Bettina, you might recall I see this in a different light than some.

The “pizza is a vegetable” phrase bothers me. It’s a snappy headline and catch phrase. An ingredient in pizza is a vegetable. That particular ingredient is calculated, for purposes of meal planning and crediting for school meals, in a different way, rather than its actual measurement. It would be calculated the same way in chili, in sloppy joes or other items. Raisins and other whole dried fruit also count as twice the volume. On the flip side of that, for leafy greens, we’ll be serving twice the amount – such as 1 cup to qualify as a 1/2 cup serving. Is that similar?

By, the way – is the info in Jared’s quote even correct? I believe that tomato paste is credited at double the amount of measurement (in other words, I think 1/8 cup can be credited as 1/4 cup – not 1/2 cup as he stated.)

Bettina, I know one of your concerns was that allowing the vegetable component of the pizza to be credited as double was that it would knock another vegetable off the plate. Depending on the grade level, the new regulations call for very specific sub groups of vegetables offered each week and a minimum of 1/2 cup fruit or vegetables each day (under offer vs serve). If that pizza, even counting the tomato paste as double, is counting as 1/4 cup vegetable, there will still need to be an additional fruit or vegetable on the plate. If the manufacturers manage to bump that tomato paste up to 1/4 cup per slice, well, then we do have a different situation going on.

If it is “just” about pizza, why not make specific pizza rules – only allowed to be served limited number of times, banned completely…some other solution? (not that I really want more rules…honest!..somewhat a hypothetical question.)

I guess I just see a lot of other things that could use more attention than the tomato paste issue. I suppose I should also state clearly that I don’t believe that pizza is a “everyday” food by any means! I tend to look at these things through the lens of what I’m seeing & doing – pizza served once a month, not every day as an option.

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EdT. May 18, 2012 at 6:49 am

Maggie – I think the issue is that pizza is served far more often than once a month, at least in some school districts. I recall when I was in HISD (many years ago, admittedly) that they went on a weekly menu cycle: when Son was in school (much more recent) I think he had access to pizza and other foods of this type on pretty much a daily basis.

That being said: I think that pizza can be a wonderful source of a balanced diet, provided the right mix of ingredients is used. Unfortunately, a mixture of “cheese, pepperoni, more cheese, tomato sauce/paste, and more cheese” really doesn’t cut it (as much as I like that type of pizza.)

~EdT.

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Maggie May 18, 2012 at 2:27 pm

I know Ed, I know.

Like I noted, I do realize I tend to view school meal issues though the lens of my own school and my own experience. It seems like it is impossible to write rules and regulations that stop every item that is seen as a problem without adding layers of difficulty for everyone involved.

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EdT. May 20, 2012 at 7:52 am

Agreed – if we could simply write what people *should* do, and they wouldn’t go interpreting that from the leans of *what they could get away with doing*, things would be a lot simpler.

~EdT.

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mommm!!! May 18, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Hold the phone! Tomatoes are a fruit, not a vegetable. Did I miss something here?

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EdT. May 20, 2012 at 7:42 am

Botanically, you are correct. However, they have been designated as a vegetable by Act of Congress, IIRC it has something to do with tax treatment (tariffs on vegetables) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomato#Fruit_or_vegetable.3F

~EdT.

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LiisaW May 29, 2012 at 7:48 am

The other day, for purposes of replying to an angry teacher who used textbooks made by our publishing house, we asked our resident botanist to respond and he wrote a long statement.

In which he summed it up that the division between fruits and vegetables is nothing scientific based on botany but a kitchen lore based on cultural perceptions which then try some backwards engineering to find some general rule and he stated many examples of such adhoc rules. Like, fruits coming off woody shrubs and trees and vegetables being herbs, which leaves out strawberries, or sweet things being fruits, but that depends on recipe, or what-has-seeds-inside-is-fruit but what about cucumbers, zucchini and probably a few others.

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