For those of you too young to remember the early 80s, President Reagan once caused a ruckus by attempting to lower school food nutrition standards as a means of reducing federal spending on the program. The big headline was that ketchup was going to count as a vegetable, leading to a huge public outcry and an eventual retreat by the Reagan administration. (It didn’t help that, according to Wikipedia, “on the same day that the USDA announced the cost-cutting proposal for school lunches, the White House purchased $209,508 worth of new china and place settings with the presidential seal embossed in gold” Doh.)
Fast forward to 2011.
Following the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act late last year, the USDA was tasked with coming up with improved nutrition standards for school meals, standards in keeping with recent recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and the first major nutritional overhaul in fifteen years. The proposed rules came out earlier this year, and that’s when the fun began (“School Food Reform: Enter the Lobbyists“).
As already reported here (and recapped well by AP today), Congressional representatives from potato-growing states worked quickly to block a new rule that would reduce the number of starchy vegetables that could served to school children in a single week. Industry also balked at a recommended reductions in sodium. And more recently, lobbyists from ConAgra Foods and The Schwan Food Company, both huge suppliers to schools of frozen pizza, are seeking to block changes to the school food rules that would end the current practice of counting pizza as a vegetable.
As Politico explains:
Currently, pizza enjoys a one-to-four multiplier, allowing one slice – with two tablespoons of tomato paste – to be counted as eight tablespoons or half a cup of vegetables, the equivalent of one serving on school menus.
The new proposal seeks to apply a stricter volume standard and thereby take away a valuable marketing tool for companies like Schwan, which boasts of its improved pizza products for school meals.
(The proposed language to block both the potato and pizza restrictions is here; the mechanism would be depriving USDA of any funding for their implementation, via amendments to a spending bill up for a vote this week.)
Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) has been a key player in the pizza war. (Guess where Schwan happens to be located? Yup. Minnesota.) The School Nutrition Association, the school food professional trade group, also endorses keeping the pizza regulations as is. So does the reasonable-sounding Coalition for Sustainable School Meal Programs which turns out, according to Politico, to be heavily funded by ConAgra and Schwan.
Meanwhile, nutrition advocacy groups like the Center For Science in the Public Interest are outraged, as is Mission Readiness, the group of retired military generals (one of whom was interviewed here not long ago) concerned with the risk posed to national security by widespread childhood obesity.
Like any parent, I’ve sometimes given my kids pizza for dinner and then done a mental calculation of how much tomato sauce is being consumed to try to justify an otherwise less-than-ideal meal. (Heck, with my veggie-averse son, I’ve even turned a Reagan-esque eye toward a bottle of ketchup now and then.) Pizza is not per se lacking in nutrition, thanks in part to those tomatoes, but to allow pizza to take the place of a vegetable on school trays is another matter entirely.*
Watching scientifically-supported (and desperately needed) nutritional improvements to school food get watered down by powerful corporate interests shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s still stomach-turning. Just like that “healthy” school meal of pizza and salty French fries our kids will be eating for years to come.
[Ed update: To get your voice heard, here's a Change.org petition on the issue. Thanks to TLT reader Ryan for sharing the link.]
* In a forthcoming post I want to talk about a related issue — the frequency with which pizza appears on middle and high school menus in my Houston district. Though the slices are served with a vegetable (usually baby carrots and ranch or broccoli florets) and are therefore presumably unaffected by this proposed rule, it’s still troubling to me that our middle and high schoolers can and often do eat pizza for lunch every single day. Stay tuned.
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