Veggie Politics: How Budget Cuts Can Make Pizza A Vegetable

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Ketchup still isn’t a vegetable but some members of Congress are working to make sure pizza still is.

With budget-cutting topping lawmakers’ list of priorities, Congress is set to halt some of the Department of Agriculture’s new nutritional guidelines for school lunches , requirements the USDA estimates will increase the already $11 billion school lunch program by almost $7 billion over five years.

Sound familiar? It should. Back in the 1980s former president Ronald Reagan tried to cut down on school lunch funding by classifying ketchup, which is much cheaper than broccoli or peas, as one of the required servings of vegetables.

Under the current school lunch rules , the two tablespoons of tomato sauce on a slice of pizza qualifies as a serving of vegetables. And a Congressional spending bill released this week ensures that it stays that way.

“We are not saying pizza is a vegetable,” said Corey Henry, the spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, which supports the bill. “What we are saying is if you serve a slice of pizza with 2 tablespoons of vegetable paste, it can be an important way to deliver a number of vegetables that children will actually consume.”

The “mini-bus” appropriations bill, which the House is expected to vote on this week, also axes the agriculture department’s plan to limit “starchy” vegetables, such as potatoes, and stops a rule that would require schools to serve whole grains.

“This is a tragedy for the country,” said retired four-star Air Force General Richard E. Hawley, who now works with Mission: Readiness to combat obesity. “We are taking a step backward apparently in response to pressure from groups who see it in their interest to serve junk food in our schools.”

Hawley said America’s obesity epidemic is a threat to national security because it is the most common medical reason why 75 percent of the country’s youth does not meet the basic requirements to serve in the military. One out of every three children in America are overweight or obese, according to the White House.

“The issue is, are we serving a balanced diet?” Hawley said. “There’s nothing wrong with the occasional french fry,  but we need to make sure there’s more to the school diet than a pizza with a little dash of tomato sauce on it.”

According to the House Appropriations Committee, these changes “prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations” that the committee’s report said would leave school districts “in the lurch.”

The spending bill only addresses some of the USDA’s proposed changes.

Nicole Barron, the business manager for the Nutrition Services Department of the Minneapolis School District, said she is most concerned about a few of the requirements that are not mentioned in the legislation, such as a proposal to increase the required fruit and vegetable serving sizes.

Because these food items are more expensive, Barron said the proposed changes may be more than some school districts can afford. USDA estimates that taken together, all of their nutritional changes would increase the cost of each lunch by about 14 cents.

“When you really get down to it, more nutritious meals cost more money,” said Jennifer Cohen, a senior education policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “And as long as we are in a situation where they are pushing for fiscal austerity in federal government, it’s unlikely that we are going to see a push for these nutritional awareness movements in school lunches.”

Cohen said the spending bill that is currently pending on Capitol Hill is “a pretty blatant product of special interest push back” because it targets requirements that would limit specific products, such as potatoes and frozen pizzas, while leaving broad calorie and fat restrictions untouched.

Two of the largest proponents of the bill, the National Potato Council and the American Frozen Food Institute, together have spent about $440,000 lobbying this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Both groups emphasized the nutritional value of potatoes and pizza, both of which are targeted by the USDA requirements and protected by the Congressional legislation.

“We believe we can improve child nutrition by ensuring that schools are able to provide vegetables in any form,” Henry said. “It’s a little bizarre for us that in trying to improve nutrition, you take items from school cafeterias that do provide vital sources of vitamins and nutrients.”