How pizza becomes a vegetable

“I wonder what I should have for breakfast.  I think I’ll ask my congressman!”

Of course, it would never occur to most of us to turn to our local politicians for dietary advice.  When Congress has passed major laws authorizing changes to the school food program, or other important programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), or the WIC program which supports healthy eating by women, infants, and children, Congress usually, and wisely, leaves the key nutrition details to scientists and other experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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And USDA, to its credit, has typically done an excellent job of setting strong nutrition standards for the school meal and those other food programs.  For instance, using the authority given to it by the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, USDA has enacted or proposed a number of rules spelling out specific nutrition improvements to the school meals themselves, and to foods sold alongside the meals, in vending machines, and elsewhere.  Those improvements mean a lot more fruits and vegetables on kids’ lunch trays, as well as more whole grains, less sodium and trans fat.  Soda, once ubiquitous in school vending machines, is now almost gone.  Just a few years after passage of this legislation, 90 percent of schools now meet the new requirements.

But while most politicians don’t care much about nutrition, all politicians are pretty good about going to bat for powerful industries in their states, or deep-pocketed donors to their campaigns.

If you want to know how pizza becomes a vegetable, don’t look to the amount of tomato sauce used.  Follow the money.  Much of the pizza sold in schools comes from a privately held Minnesota company called Schwan Food.  In 2011, Schwan was able to leverage its clout in Congress to pass a rider that let pizza basically count as a vegetable in the school lunch program, thanks to its smear of tomato paste.

Potato-state politicians from Idaho and Maine likewise regularly go on offense for that industry, fighting successfully in 2011 to preserve French fries as a regular option in school meals.  Now lobbyists for the potato industry are prodding politicians to meddle in the WIC program by allowing white potatoes—a food that most people are eating too much of in the form of French fries—into this program that provides key foods needed to supplement and fill in nutritional gaps in women and children’s diets

Politicians are similarly interfering on behalf of the steel industry, of all things, by insisting that the Farm Bill allow canned fruit in a special fruit and vegetable snack program designed to introduce children to fresh produce.  (This is the same industry that Reuters says wants to rebrand the pantry as the “cantry.”)

This week appropriators in both the House and Senate are scheduled to hold important votes on agriculture spending.  It’s anyone’s guess as to what kind of mischief committee members will propose.  Look for someone to propose giving schools more “flexibility” in dealing with the nutrition requirements, which would likely be a code word for rolling back progress on fruits, vegetables, sodium, and whole grains.

The important documentary Fed Up, in theaters now, shows a somewhat sheepish Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, uncomfortably answering Katie Couric’s question about the pizza-as-vegetable controversy.  “Somebody could probably make a scientific argument that it is, but [pizza] is not [a vegetable] in my household.”  

Pizza is not a vegetable, money is not speech, and politicians are certainly not dietitians.  Secretary Vilsack has a hard enough job improving children’s health and school meals.  Congress should butt out and let him do it.

Jacobson is executive director and Wootan is director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC.