Reagan Revisited: Should Pizza Count as a School Food “Vegetable”?

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 15, 2011

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.]

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*  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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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan November 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm

A petition stopped Bank of America right? Lets tell Congress how upset we are by this.

http://www.change.org/petitions/the-us-senate-tomato-paste-on-pizza-is-not-a-vegetable-for-school-lunches

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Ah, thank you for the link, Ryan! I’ll update the post to include it.

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Ryan November 17, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Thanks Bettina. 118 and counting. Plus the networks are starting to pick up on this issue. Lets hope we can win this battle.

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mara November 15, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Sad how with school food programs it always seems to be a matter of following the money. Ii have been told our high school has a new sandwhich bar this year. I’ll have to get a spy on that although I think my girls wouldn’t dream of stepping foot in the cafeteria. Apparently a totally uncool thing to do!

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 15, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I’ve seen pix of that sandwich bar and it looked GOOD. Field trip, please? Pretty please?

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Mara November 15, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Yes! We must plan!

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Ed Bruske November 15, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Well, it wasn’t after passage of the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” that the USDA was tasked with coming up with new nutrition standards. That happened in 2004, when Congress directed the USDA to develop nutrition standards for school meal programs that would align with the with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Subsequently, the USDA contracted with the Institute of Medicine to develop these guidelines. The IOM proposals were first released in October 2009. The USDA embraced these in the proposed standards in published last January, following passage of the afore-mentioned act.

In other words, the USDA with these new standards is only doing the bidding of Congress, aligning with the Dietary Guidelines, which call for Americans to eat a balance of vegetables and more whole grains, which means more green and orange vegetables, legumes and whole grain products, and less pizza and potatoes. I explained in this earlier post:

http://betterdcschoolfood.blogspot.com/2011/10/sentate-posts-new-school-lunch-score.html

Now comes the processed food industry, lobbying Congress to micro-manage the guideline writing process to restore potatoes and pizza. Margo Wootan at the Center for Science and the Public Interest, who has been working on this issue for years to achieve these new guidelines, must be pulling her hair out. This also does not bode well for the other guidelines the USDA is working on–what to do with foods sold outside the federally-subsidized school lunch, as in vending machines, school stores and a la carte lines. Congress gave the USDA authority to regulate these foods for the first time. What the USDA will do with that authority remains to be seen.

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Maggie November 15, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Is your concern about tomato ingredients mainly related to pizza? Should they be dis-allowed in items such as spaghetti sauce, Spanish rice, chili, sloppy joe?

Or is the concern mainly that a combination food like pizza can, on it’s own, be counted as a reimbursable meal?

If that is the case, I do understand, I think, your concern. When a single item contains all components to potentially count as a reimbursable meal (under the food based planning method, and assuming offer vs serve) it doesn’t “force” the student to choose any other side dishes to complete a reimbursable meal and it doesn’t help to educate as to what a meal should look like.

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Ryan November 16, 2011 at 9:35 am

My concern is that congress is caving to special interests and gutting our nutrition standards. We have required vegetable servings to meet dietary recommendations. Tomato past could meet that recommendation but it would take a half cup of tomato past per serving to do so. Instead, congress has specifically given tomato paste a “multiplier”, so that it counts for four times the actual volume represented. Leader of this effort – Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). Why is she fighting for this – Schwan, who sells frozen pizza to schools, is based in Minnesota.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 16, 2011 at 9:44 am

Exactly right! And be sure to see my follow-up post on a related pizza issue: bit.ly/smBFoZ

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Maggie November 16, 2011 at 3:06 pm

So, the concern is political? Got it.

I have not had the chance to research to see if I can find out what the process/reasoning was when tomato paste was originally put into place with the multiplier…it has been that way for some time, it’s not new. If I’d been asked, I would have assumed it is because of the nutrient “density”… how many tomatoes does it take to make paste?

Not that it probably matters, and it isn’t the point, but…I don’t know if there are any pizza out there that claim 1/2 cup vegetable serving…most are 1/8 cup to 1/4 cup. The scratch USDA recipe credits 1/4 cup vegetable serving. Another fruit/vegetable would have to be offered (again, assuming food based planning)

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Uly November 17, 2011 at 10:19 am

Depends on how you make it. Once I’m done making my pizza with a squash crust (gluten free on demand!) and tomato sauce, topped with onions, spinach, and basil – it’s safe to say we just about hit half a serving of vegetables.

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Right, Uly, but that’s a far cry from the pizza sold in most schools, sadly.

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Uly November 17, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Indeed it is. For “most” substitute “any”. I doubt there’s one that uses a squash-based crust!

But the comment said there probably aren’t ANY reasonable portions of pizza that can claim to have 1/2 cup of vegetables, and I wanted to point out that for the sufficiently motivated, it can be done.

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Maggie November 18, 2011 at 7:09 am

OK, what are we discussing?

Yes, a pizza can be made that could contain 1/2 cup of vegetable, no multiplier involved…toppings, crust, wherever we’d want those vegetable ingredients.

Is the discussion about the multiplier factor of tomato paste, the fact that congress is changing/attempting to change the IOM proposals, the fact that an ingredient in pizza is currently classified as a vegetable, the thought that pizza should be served a limited amount of times…I feel like I’m trying to discuss a moving target!

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Maggie: Wasn’t sure if you’re addressing me in particular, but speaking for myself, I think the real scandal here is Congress meddling with the IOM proposals as what appears to be the direct result of corporate influence. That’s scandalous, in my opinion. The issue of the frequency with which pizza is served in my district was a subsidiary issue that I wanted to throw out there since pizza was suddenly the big topic of discussion.

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Maggie November 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Thanks Bettina,

The question was in general, I appreciate your response. When all is said and done, I do have to wonder if the “multiplier” was dis-allowed if it would really make a whole lot of difference in the quantity of pizza sold to schools? I suppose there are schools that do plan their menus so closely to the requirements that the loss of the 1/8 cup of vegetable that is part of the pizza would matter.

Sadly, I think the original creative headline has set off more misunderstanding than anything. But, like always, drama is good, something like “Many pizzas have tomato based sauce and tomatoes are a vegetable” wouldn’t have a lot of impact.

I’m not sure anyone is ever going to be able to write the perfect regulations. Those who wish to find loop-holes will do so, and those who wish to do better than the minimum will do better. Sadly, in attempts to thwart the loop-hole finders, it seems like the regulations simply become more restrictive and cumbersome.

Thanks again for the space to discuss.

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Cristi November 16, 2011 at 1:47 am

I just finished reading about this and came directly here to see if you’d posted anything about it! I can always count on you :)

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 16, 2011 at 8:34 am

So glad I came through! WHEW! :-)

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