Commentary: Only in Congress would pizza become a vegetable

The Kansas City StarNovember 18, 2011 

See if you can score higher on this pop quiz than members of the U.S. Congress.

How much tomato paste must one slather onto a slice of pizza for it to qualify as a nutritionally adequate serving of vegetables for low-income schoolchildren?

A quarter-cup? A half-cup? Two tablespoons?

It’s a trick question. A tomato is actually a fruit. But let’s leave aside the horticultural definition and talk about how Congress failed the quiz. It chose 2 tablespoons, blocking sorely needed nutritional upgrades to the $11 billion federal school lunch programs. It did so because members’ brains (and quite possibly their bellies) are controlled by lobbyists.

Two tablespoons is about the amount of paste commonly found on the cardboard slices that pose as pizza in far too many school cafeterias. That amount will continue to qualify as a vegetable serving. Did I mention the frozen food lobby?

Let’s move on to another question. How many servings of potatoes, aka french fries, is it wise to serve to children before their diet becomes too laden with starch? Congress’ answer? An unlimited number!

And let’s not even go into the question of whether it is wise, as was suggested by the Department of Agriculture, that school lunches require at least half of the breads served each week be from whole grains. Congress pleaded ignorance, claiming it needed a better definition on what exactly is a whole grain.

In a healthier world, Congress should have argued for different option. In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued new guidelines for school lunches, as mandated by a 2004 act of Congress. The new rules called for limiting starchy vegetables, reducing sodium and raising the amount of tomato sauce that could be considered a vegetable serving, among other changes. The frozen pizza and french fry lobby was not pleased. According to the New York Times, the food industry spent $5.6 million lobbying against the new rules.

Clearly, all of Michelle Obama’s digging in the White House garden, among other attempts to steer the nation’s children toward fresh fruits and vegetables, just got clobbered. If anyone needs more evidence that the U.S. Congress is working on behalf of lobbyists, rather than in the best interests of the nation, this charade is it.

The nutritional guidelines for the National School Lunch Program hadn’t been updated in 15 years. During that time, obesity rates among children skyrocketed. A full one-third of American children are either overweight or obese, with rates of diabetes and other health-related issues also showing dangerous increases. Children receive about 40 percent of their daily calories from school lunches, so there is a connection.

The prepared foods and big agriculture industries were not the only ones pushing back against the new USDA rules. School officials, especially in big cities, were concerned about how the changes might affect their ability to feed needy students.

Reduced-cost and free lunch menus provide meals for 31 million children each school year. The federal government pays schools a maximum of $2.94 for each lunch served. The changes were expected to increase the costs of the school lunches by 14 cents — not a trifling amount when added up. School officials also wanted more flexibility, especially on issues such as the number of starches that would be allowed. For instance, baked potatoes are a nutritionally sound choice.

And, predictably, conservative ideologues added their anti-government bromides to the debate, lamenting the USDA rules’ incursion on “choice.”

Maybe if Congress had worked more to find middle ground with the American Association of School Administrators, they might have found more leverage and courage to push back on the food lobbyists. They might even have shifted attitudes in the food industry about which food offerings can be profitable in cafeterias.

The connections between obesity and poverty and health problems are undeniable, and ignoring school lunch nutrition just makes them more expensive for the taxpayer. So, to the outcry that the federal government shouldn’t be telling schools what to serve in the cafeteria, here’s a parental reply: As long as we’re paying the bills for these programs, you’ll serve what we tell you to!

A strong argument can be made that healthier children are more ready to learn. Healthy children also have fewer school absences, are more engaged in their studies and quite possibly will behave better. Now, what educator would work against that outcome?

As any parent can attest, getting children to upgrade their food habits can be difficult. Temper tantrums, hiding the peas under the knife, tossing the unwanted fresh fruit into the trash, or choosing the higher calorie strawberry and chocolate milk are real issues.

Getting Congress to act the adult, to vote in the best interests of children, shouldn’t be an even more daunting task.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service