Is pizza a vegetable? Congress will decide
Buried in a thick spending bill before Congress that must be approved to prevent a government shutdown is one line dealing with tomato paste.
The line would ensure that two tablespoons of tomato paste slathered on school pizzas can continue to be classified as a vegetable serving. It seeks to block a Department of Agriculture effort that critics say would make it harder to offer pizza in the federally subsidized school lunch program.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has attacked the provision, saying in a statement that it "may go down in nutritional history as a bigger blunder than when the Reagan administration tried, but failed, to credit ketchup as a vegetable in the school lunch program."
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the center, said in an interview that "Pizza should be served with a vegetable, not count as one."
The provision has drawn the attention, and ridicule, of "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart. Citing a congressional panel's struggles to come up with a deficit-reduction plan, Stewart joked, "So the one thing that you've all been able to sit down and agree upon is that pizza is a vegetable.''
The Department of Agriculture, pushing for healthier food for kids, has sought a stricter provision requiring that food contain half a cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving.
Currently, two tablespoons of tomato paste are considered by the government to be a vegetable.
The provision is included in a bill headed for congressional approval as early as Thursday. The bill would fund the Department of Agriculture and some other federal agencies while extending spending authority for other departments until mid-December.
"If the USDA rule went forward as is, pizza would most certainly be all but impossible to serve in school lunch programs," said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute.
"Schools have to meet nutrition requirements at every meal to get reimbursed by the federal government,'' he added. "To get a vegetable credit using tomato paste under the USDA’s proposed rule, schools would have to drown pizza in tomato sauce to the point where kids would never want to eat a slice of pizza. If schools have to add so much sauce to get a vegetable credit that pizza becomes inedible, they simply won’t serve pizza any longer."
Wootan said the provision to retain the two-tablespoon-only threshold comes in response to heavy frozen-food industry lobbying.
"It's a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than protecting children's health," she said. "But this is Washington."
Henry of the frozen-food group said in an interview that "everybody agrees that there needs to be a concerted effort to improve nutrition, particularly in school meals. However, we don’t think you can improve nutrition by removing items from school meals that kids like to eat and provide important sources of nutrients and vitamins like a single slice of pizza can.
"Pizza is not the problem here," he added. "Pizza can be served in a perfect healthy way."
Department of Agriculture spokesman Aaron Lavallee said the USDA proposal is backed by "practical, science-based standards" to serve more vegetables to kids, "either by putting other vegetables on the pizza itself or serving them elsewhere on the tray."
The tomato provision is in addition to another provision of the bill, pushed by lawmakers from potato-producing states, that would block proposed Department of Agriculture nutrition rules to limit the consumption of starchy vegetables, including potatoes and, Wootan notes, french fries in schools.
John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive of the National Potato Council, said in a statement that the group hopes to work with the Department of Agriculture "to promote the nutritional and economic value of potatoes, which provide school food service professionals the flexibility they need to deliver healthy meals to students.”
A House Republican aide said that members of both parties have been contacted by local school officials expressing concern about changes to the lunch program. "Our primary concern was the cost to local school districts,'' the staffer said.
— Richard Simon in Washington
Photo: Congress takes up the issue of pizza in school lunches. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times