When it comes to the politics of school lunch programs, the easy part is agreeing that kids should be eating more fruits and vegetables.
The hard part? Determining what counts as a vegetable. Take, for instance, the tomato sauce on pizza. As part of new nutrition standards proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, schools would need to use about one-half cup of tomato paste on pizza in order for the sauce to count as a vegetable serving.
"A slice of pizza would literally be swimming in tomato paste," says Corey Henry of the American Frozen Food Institute. The group has lobbied Congress to change the provision. "No kid at school is going to eat a piece of pizza that's just drenched in tomato paste," he adds.
And lawmakers seem to agree. The House of Representatives' agriculture appropriations bill is out today, and it looks as if the bill will prevent the new rule on tomato paste from taking effect. It's a big score for the industry.
But advocates of stricter nutrition regulations say kids are the losers if the Pizza-As-A-Vegetable rule stays.
"It's a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than in protecting children's health," wrote Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in a statement today.
"This [nutrition regulation proposed by Congress] may go down as the biggest nutritional blunder since Reagan tried to declare ketchup as a vegetable," Wootan tells The Salt. "It's ridiculous to call pizza a vegetable."
But she argues that pizza should be served with a vegetable. The nutrition standards, she argues, were intended to reinforce the 2010 Dietary Guidelines that say it's important for people to eat whole fruits and vegetables.
The AFFI's Corey Henry argues that even a little tomato paste on a slice of pizza packs in a lot of the nutrients kids need.
"Tomato paste is almost unique in its ability to provide a very significant amount of critical nutrients and vitamins," says Henry. And he argues that any comparison to the 1980s ketchup-as-a-vegetable controversy is just unfair.
"Not to disparage ketchup," says Henry, but "I'm not aware that ketchup has anywhere near the same ability to deliver vitamins."
It's not just the tomato sauce standard that lawmakers are rewriting. A provision meant to limit starchy vegetables, like french fries, also has had the potato lobbyists hard at work.
The House is expected to approve the measures when it votes on the agriculture appropriations bill later this week.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now, this question. Should pizza be considered a vegetable? That's one of the questions at the heart of a food fight between the Obama administration and Congress. The administration has written new nutrition standards meant to get more fruits and vegetables into school lunches, but NPR's Allison Aubrey reports that lawmakers are set to give pizza the nutritional benefit of the doubt.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: What counts as a vegetable in the school cafeteria may sound like a pretty straightforward question, except when there's politics involved. People may remember the Regan era proposal to reclassify our most popular condiment as a vegetable. Now, it looks like Congress may change the way we think about pizza sauce.
MARGO WOOTAN: This may go down in nutritional history as the biggest blunder since Regan tried to declare ketchup as a vegetable.
AUBREY: Margo Wootan directs nutrition policy for the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest. She says, if Congress gets its way, a slice of pizza with a bit of tomato sauce will count as a vegetable.
WOOTAN: It's ridiculous to call pizza a vegetable. It's not that a whole grain, low-fat pizza can't be a healthy entrée, but pizza should be served with a vegetable.
AUBREY: This is the whole point of new nutrition standards written by the Obama administration. Give kids more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and less salt and sugar, but some of the provisions made the food industry nervous.
For example, one said that for a slice of pizza to qualify as a vegetable serving, it had to have a half-cup of sauce on it. Corey Henry of the American Frozen Food Institute argues this would have pushed pizza right off the cafeteria menu.
COREY HENRY: A slice of pizza would literally be swimming in tomato paste. No kid at school is going to eat a piece of pizza that is just drenched in tomato paste.
AUBREY: So his group set out to convince lawmakers that the pizza they're currently making, with just two tablespoons of tomato sauce, is more than enough to make a vegetable serving.
HENRY: Tomato paste is almost unique in its ability to provide a very significant amount of critical nutrients. So, for example, pizza sauce in the form of tomato paste provides a very nutrient-rich source of vitamins A and C, potassium, fiber and the antioxidant lycopene.
AUBREY: Henry argues that any comparison to the 1980s ketchup as a vegetable controversy are just unfair.
HENRY: It's not even remotely close to that discussion. Not to disparage ketchup. I'm not aware that ketchup has the same ability to deliver vitamins to school kids.
AUBREY: It's not just the tomato sauce standard that lawmakers are rewriting. A provision meant to limit starchy vegetables, think French fries, has also had the potato lobbyists hard at work. The changes are expected to go through when the House votes on the Agriculture Appropriations Bill later this week.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.