Joining ketchup in the category of specious vegetables is pizza, thanks to the US Congress, which earlier this week blocked new rules proposed by the Agriculture Department to make school lunches healthier.
The agriculture appropriations bill drafted by the House and Senate earlier this week will prevent a rule proposed by the USDA that would have required using at least one-half of a cup of tomato paste on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The food industry — including heavyweights ConAgra and Del Monte Foods — contends that the current rule, which says that a quarter-cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza can count as a vegetable, is sufficient.
Not surprisingly, the food industry applauded Congress and said the Agriculture Department went too far in trying to improve nutrition in school lunches. Lobbyists for the food industry claim that one-half cup of tomato paste is just too much. “A slice of pizza would literally be swimming in tomato paste,” says Corey Henry of the American Frozen Food Institute. Critics of the proposed rule say kids wouldn’t eat the soggy slices, which would cost more and probably be thrown out.
In a recent blog post entitled Ketchup is a vegetable? Again?, nutritionist Marion Nestle draws a parallel between Congress’s action to block stricter nutrition standards and the uproar when the Reagan Administration proposed to allow ketchup to count as a vegetable in school meals. Ironically, while Congress in 1981 excoriated the administration for trying to elevate a lowly condiment to vegetable status, today it’s siding with the food industry by endorsing pizza as a vegetable.
I was surprised to learn that pizza is currently allowed to be considered a vegetable in the strange nutritional world of school lunches. It’s disappointing that the proposed changes — the first in 15 years to the school lunch program — were defeated and that kids will miss out on an opportunity to eat more fruits and veggies at lunch. Frozen pizza is not what most nutritionists and responsible adults would consider a nutritious meal.
This is certainly a big win for big food. The losers are kids.