The WashPo Gets It Wrong, And a Few Final Words on Pizza = Vegetable

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 21, 2011

Sameer Siddiqi of the excellent @ObesityPolicy Twitter feed alerted me this morning to a piece on the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog entitled, “No, Congress did not declare pizza a vegetable.”  In it, writer Sarah Kliff attempts to calm the ruffled feathers of school food reform advocates like myself who are outraged by Congress’s watering down of school nutrition standards last week under pressure from food industry lobbyists.

Kliff soothingly reassures us:

There’s just one little misperception: Congress didn’t declare pizza to be a vegetable. And, from a strictly nutritional standpoint, there’s decent evidence that lawmakers didn’t exactly bungle this decision.

On the former point, I’m entirely in agreement.  While this technicality was missed in a lot of the media coverage last week, my post and others made clear that a serving of pizza already qualified as a half-cup serving of vegetables due to its tomato paste content, and USDA was attempting to end this practice by changing the way the tomato paste would be measured (by actual volume, instead of allowing two tablespoons – the amount on a slice of pizza – to stand in for a half-cup serving of vegetables.)

But Kliff’s support of Congress’s action last week is both poorly reasoned and misguided.

First, Kliff does a nutritional analysis of tomato paste to show it stacks up reasonably well against some fruits and vegetables.  That’s fine — I acknowledged in my own post that a slice of pizza is not without nutritional benefits.  But she seems to believe, amazingly, that school food reformers are upset because they simply wanted more tomato paste on pizza:

As for the half-cup of tomato paste at the center of this debate, it would no doubt have had more nutrients than an eighth-cup. Advocacy groups were disappointed to see the regulatory change blocked. More tomato paste would mean more pizza sauce, would mean more potassium and fiber. But the smaller serving, in strictly nutritional terms, looks a whole lot like the larger serving of some of the most common fruits and vegetables we consume.

Seriously?  She thinks that was the cause of our concern?

Of course, the real issue is that when pizza counts as a vegetable, it knocks other vegetables off the tray.   So yes, it’s true, as Kliff says, that a “cafeteria worker can’t just pile a slice of pizza on a plate and say she’s serving salad,” but due to Congress’s actions last week, now she doesn’t have to serve that salad at all!

In an era in which one out of three American children is already overweight or obese, why obstruct a rule that would expose

Just as good as salad?

children to healthier meal choices in their school cafeteria?  Why support an action that will result in more pizza versus less for kids already eating far too much of a food that ought to be viewed as a special treat?   We know the answer to those questions:  the money and influence of Big Food, and a moral failure by this Congress to stand up for the health of American kids.  (Check out Appetite for Profit‘s excellent critique of Congress here.)

Finally, I just don’t know what to say about the conclusion of Kliff’s piece:

Moreover, it’s far from clear how much this decision matters for what students actually eat. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes guidelines for what school meals should look like, few schools actually follow them. Just 20 percent of schools served meals that met federal guidelines for fat content, according to a 2007 USDA audit.

So, just because some schools flout USDA rules (and, by the way, that’s often due not to negligence or nefarious intent, but a lack of adequate funding), we ought to throw up our hands and not care what the rules look like?  Gee, what a great way to set public policy.

Moving on from Kliff’s piece, a few more things to share on pizza=vegetable before we leave this topic behind (at least for now):

  • I was speaking with a source familiar with Congressional legislative procedure, and he reminded me that the agricultural spending bill which gutted the pizza and potato school food rules will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, i.e, September, 2012.  That means there will be another opening for advocates to get the rules reinstated at that time.  But whether there will be the political will to do so remains to be seen;  on the eve of a presidential election, and with Mrs. Obama remaining curiously silent about all this even now, the prospects don’t look good.
  • There has been some great reporting about this issue that’s worth reading for its big picture analysis.  Check out Michele Simon’s Appetite for Profit post cited above, Dana Woldow’s piece today in Beyond Chron which views the pizza issue in the larger school food regulation context, and another solid piece in the Huffington Post by Kristin Wartman.
  • And finally, if you haven’t seen Saturday Night Live’s hilarious take on the issue, you must.  The video is here.

 

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Donald November 21, 2011 at 4:03 pm

It seems to me that what you’re saying is that you don’t think that processed vegetable products should be given the same treatment as an actual vegetable; I can agree that eating an actual tomato should be treated differently than eating ketchup on your hot dog.

However I don’t think that ignoring the calorie content and nutritional value of food when setting a serving size is a good idea either, which is effectively what the proposed change would have done.

The article you cited also states that only 20% of schools actually follow the current guidelines for meals that they provide to students.
It seems to me that before we start changing things we should make sure the current guidelines are followed.

After all, if schools won’t follow the current regulations because they are too expensive, what would making those regulations more expensive actually accomplish?

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Maggie November 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm

I wonder if removing the multiplier would have been enough to decrease the amount of pizza purchased/served by schools?

If that sauce would no longer “count” for 1/8 cup of vegetable, would schools quit serving pizza as often because they’d have to offer that additional 1/8 cup amount as another fruit/vegetable?

I did also want to add, even if the sauce *is* allowed to count as a fruit/vegetable, there would still need to be at least one other fruit/vegetable offered. If the sauce didn’t count, the meal would have to be planned with two additional fruit/vegetable items.

If the sauce “counts”, a student could select just a piece of pizza and have what the government says is a reimbursable meal. If the sauce didn’t “count”, the student would need to select another item (milk or another fruit/vegetable) along with the pizza (which would then only “count” as bread and meat/meat alternate), to qualify it as a reimbursable meal.

(I’m making a few assumptions about the age/grade of the school, assuming that the entire menu was planned with the proper components, which menu planning pattern they follow, if using offer vs served… with that specific example…ended up with a page and a half long reply when I tried to explain it more!)

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Donald November 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm

I personally know two people who work in two different school cafeterias.
I asked them both about this and one of them responded that if it had passed they would have put mushrooms, olives or some other cheap vegetable on the pizza, thus making sure the pizza had the required amount of vegetables to count as a serving.

The other said that they already served some kind of vegetables on their pizza when they had it so the proposed change wouldn’t affect her school; two slices of pizza and a drink would still technically count as a balanced meal.

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Maggie November 21, 2011 at 9:36 pm

In our case, while I’m aware that the pizza could count for 1/8 cup of the fruit/vegetable requirement, we don’t really even consider it in the menu planning. We serve pizza once a month.

Typically the menu on that day would include tossed salad (1/2 cup) (50/50 mix of romaine & iceburg), a cooked vegetable (1/4 cup) typically green beans, broccoli or California blend (depending on what’s on the other days that week), fruit choices (1/4 cup to 1/2 cup) (at least 3, including one fresh each day) and milk choices (8 ounces) (plain 1% and skim and chocolate skim) .

(No, not offering that as any sort of wonderfully perfect menu, just explaining our typical menu with pizza.)

In any case, I don’t think that whichever way the ruling had gone would make a difference for us as far as any changes to what we would do with pizza. (but, that said…I’m not the boss!) :-)

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Bettina Elias Siegel November 22, 2011 at 9:15 am

Sorry, Donald and Maggie, for not jumping in sooner.

Donald, to get to the issues raised in your first comment, it’s not so much that I’m valuing fresh over processed vegetables (e.g, a rule that favored apple sauce over apples wouldn’t get me in such a tizzy), it’s that kids today are truly inundated by pizza. If you’re a parent, you know that every single gathering, birthday party, class party, after school event, etc. that takes place after 10am seems to involve pizza and, as I reported here on TLT a few days ago, in my district, Houston ISD, middle and high school kids can get it as part of the reimbursable federal meal every single day.

Going back to my very first post on this blog, I question whether serving kids the sorts of junky foods they love (even if they’re doctored to be more nutritious) is such a good idea in this current food climate. In other words, I have always felt that what happens in the cafeteria is a teaching moment, intentional or inadvertent, and if we push salad, or carrot sticks, or green beans or an apple off the tray to make room for pizza (the net result of Congress’s action last week), are we doing the best we can by our kids? Are we helping them learn about sound food choices so they can navigate the world outside the cafeteria a little better?

I realize I’ve veered off into a philosophical issue that’s far afield from the more technical conversation you and Maggie have been having, but that’s really what animates me, personally, about this whole episode. That, and the fact that Congress tasked USDA to come up with science based (IOM) nutrition standards and then turned around and weakened them at the behest of corporate lobbyists. That’s deeply troubling.

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Maggie November 22, 2011 at 2:32 pm

I’m understanding completely about your concern about congress/lobbyists.

To address your related practical concern, I do still stand by my question/thoughts in a previous reply…wondering if the multiplier had been disallowed if it would really have caused a change in how much pizza is served?

Philosophically for me – As I think about this issue, I believe what’s frustrating to me is that a creative headline caught so much (negative?) attention. I’m with you completely about congress’ involvement. But, I think that the uproar is pretty unfocused and has created negative feelings that are not necessarily aimed at congress. The details are not always understood, and I’m not sure how many are looking at the facts at this point – so much is simply a reaction to the “pizza=vegetable” statement rather than any real understanding of what is going on. If the attention inspired people to be aware and concerned to learn and work for real change..that’s one thing. Not sure I’m seeing that. (not referring to this blog!)

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