Congress and School Lunches

The Latest National Food Fight

Congressional Decision Sparks “Tomato Paste” Debate

If you’ve been following the national headlines recently, you’re probably aware of the “pizza vegetable” controversy.

To be clear, Congress is not saying that pizza in itself is a vegetable. In fact, pizza was already considered a vegetable according to the federally-funded school lunch program. The issue here is what goes into the pizza. Currently, two tablespoons of tomato paste on a piece of pizza is enough for it to pass through the legal loophole as a serving of vegetables. Even so, how can two tablespoons of tomato paste be considered a serving of vegetables?

That’s the question all of us want to know.

This debate has stemmed from a larger issue regarding a change in school lunch program guidelines. The USDA is in charge of making sure that American dietary guidelines (updated every five years) apply to the roughly $11-billion school lunch program, which provides free or reduced lunches to more than 31 million students. The uproar was set off by certain members of Congress who inserted language into the annual agriculture appropriations bill that undercut the USDA’s ability to amend the school lunch program.

The Pizza Vegetable Backstory

According to the LA Times, “the current nutrition standards for school lunches are based on federal dietary guidelines from 1989. After the guidelines were updated in 2005, the USDA asked the Institute of Medicine to evaluate how the school lunch program could be brought in line with them. The institute’s report came out in 2009, and the USDA used it to develop a plan that includes cutting back on ingredients like salt and potatoes, reducing saturated fats and total calories, and boosting fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal was to improve nutrition and help stem the tide of childhood obesity. The USDA published its proposed recommendations in the Federal Register in January, and invited members of the public to comment on them.”

One of the USDA’s concerns was that school lunches weren’t providing enough variety. Not enough fruits and vegetables were being served, so USDA officials proposed separating fruits and vegetable into different categories in order to increase the variety offered to children. They also specified that once a week, lunches were to offer at least one half-cup serving of each of the following:

- Dark green vegetables (such as spinach or broccoli)
– Orange vegetables (carrots, squash)
– Legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans)
– Starchy vegetables (white potatoes, corn)
– “Other” vegetables, including tomatoes (The USDA’s definition of a “vegetable” is in line with how people use and think of them, not according to the fact that “vegetables” like tomatoes are actually fruits)

The Tomato Paste Debacle

“Under current regulations, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is considered the nutritional equivalent of a half-cup serving of vegetables, since that’s how much tomato it takes to make it. But the USDA noted in its proposal that other pastes and purees don’t get the same treatment — they get credit only for the ‘actual volume as served,‘” wrote the LA Times.

That “loophole” is what makes it possible for a slice of pizza to count as a serving of vegetables, says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

The USDA’s new new rules would have brought tomato paste in line with other foods. But Congress adjusted the agricultural appropriations bill to preserve the paste’s special treatment, and President Obama signed the bill this month.

Critics say legislators acted at the request of giant food companies looking for an inexpensive way to deliver meals that count as having a serving of vegetables. In other words, it was a way to save money while meeting these nutritional requirements for school lunches. The loophole as it stands allows this to happen.

Is child nutrition expendable at the sight of dollar signs from these corporate lobbyists?

Senators from the home states of big-time frozen food players like Schwan’s Food Service Inc. (which supplies frozen pizzas to 75% of U.S. schools) are against the USDA’s proposal to close the tomato paste loophole. The USDA also proposed limits on the amounts of starchy vegetables (e.g. white potatoes used to make French Fries), in which senators from big potato-producing states like Idaho vehemently opposed.

What Does This Mean for the Childhood Obesity Epidemic?

This whole pizza/tomato paste situation has benefited the makers of frozen pizza who have exclusive deals with the government’s public school system. Because the changes were shot down, ConAgra Foods Inc. and Schwan’s Food Services Inc. will not have to make any changes to their products. This means that they can watch the money continue to roll in while children continue to eat unhealthy frozen pizza as a way to get their “vegetable intake” for the day.

If we want our children to make healthful choices, those choices needed to be provided to them from the institutions that promote health in the first place.

What’s your take on the “pizza vegetable” debate? Leave us a comment to let us know.

The Buzz Around Town

Here’s what Ed Bruske posted on Ann Cooper’s (The Renegade Lunch Lady) blog regarding this issue:

“There’s a fascinating subtext to this story, and it has to do with our attitude toward the schools themselves and their role in feeding children more healthfully. The nation’s 14,000 school district are hardly innocent bystanders in this dispute. They do not have to serve industrial pizza and french fries to children every day. But many do. They pander to kids’ terrible eating habits and look the other way. As I’ve mentioned here before, pizza doesn’t have to be junk food. Ann Cooper, the nation’s premier cafeteria reformer, serves it twice-weekly in her menu schemes. But she aims for whole grain crusts, topped with a homemade sauce containing real vegetables besides tomatoes. She does not count the sauce as a “vegetable.” In Ann Cooper’s world, pizza only passes as a grain.”

To Take Action

Although the bill was passed on November 17, Jamie Oliver still encourages you to join his plea to Congress.

-Text “JAMIE” to 90975
-Submit an online letter via our friends at CSPI

Really? Pizza Vegetable Debate Featured on Saturday Night Live


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HUMANs Helping Out

HUMAN Team Member Gives Back to Community

This past week, HUMAN team member Eli Owens exhibited the true spirit of Thanksgiving by participating in the Basket Brigade. He led a group of volunteers who put together food and gift baskets, which they then took around Santa Monica and Venice and passed them out to low-income famillies who were low on food.

Giving back is cool!

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skelly

Biomedical Engineer who earned his degree from The Johns Hopkins University & Columbia University. Named one of Forbes’ Top 30 Under 30 in 2013. Co-Founded America’s first Pure Play healthy vending company in 2003.
 

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