Pizza isn't a vegetable, but Congress thinks so by favoring food lobbyists who have a lot to lose if school lunches get healthier. Fortunately for them, lobbyists' arguments against a healthy school lunch proposal earned an A+ with lawmakers, much to the detriment of school kids everywhere.
Yesterday, news broke that our lawmakers sat in a room and squabbled over how much tomato paste can transform pizza into a vegetable. Perhaps this characterization is a bit unfair (though, apparently, the most newsworthy) so let me start over. Yesterday, news broke that our lawmakers ignored the Agriculture Department's final rules on nutrition standards for school meals in favor of potato and pizza lobbyists who earn $11 billion annually from school lunches.
There, that's better.
The Obama administration's proposal to make school lunches healthier is part of a spending bill that funds the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. But Congress put the kibosh this week on recommendations that aimed to limit starchy vegetables to two servings a week and remove the vegetable label from tomato paste. The USDA would have overturned its previous rule that an eighth of a cup of tomato paste counts as one vegetable serving.
It doesn't take an advanced nutrition degree to realize that pizza is not a vegetable. But when you've got $403,000 (I'm looking at you, American Frozen Food Institute), it appears that you can make Congress believe anything.
And in this corner: fast food
The best arguments that the salt industry, American Frozen Food Institute, conservatives and potato growers used—to sad success—included:
The federal government shouldn't be telling children what to eat. (These conservatives, then, also would abolish the USDA, which is responsible for keeping our food supply safe?)
The proposed changes would prevent costly regulations to schools. (How about the costs which trickle down into healthcare bills because 1/3 of American children are obese?)
- Local school districts will have greater flexibility to improve the nutritional quality of meals. (Anyone who watched "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" knows that schools are not taking it upon themselves to do this.)
But what really gets me is the argument that kids favor pizza and french fries over vegetables, when given the option.
Well, duh. This is an argument I can understand because even in a Mexican, Thai or Indian restaurant you can find french fries on the kids' menu. (P.S. Happy National Fast Food Day.)
When I was in grade school, my school lunch was delivered by local fast food joints such as Arby's and McDonalds. Friday was "Pizza Friday." That is, until junior high when my school grew wise, either to expense or nutrition, and brought in a catered lunch program that served green beans, fresh salad and, yes, pizza slices.
The backlash was awful until we all grew used to the new food—or didn't. I started packing my lunch, opting for carrots instead of pizza because it didn't taste as good as Pizza Hut's. By not having many junk food options at school, my diet became healthier by default.
I realize that it takes time to detox from a junk food diet, and in the meantime schools will have some upset kids on their hands. But unless someone—in this case, the government—decides to shift the system, kids will never be given a chance to prefer broccoli over a baked potato.
I'm not looking forward to the next generation—one that grows up believing pizza is a vegetable.