by Renée Canada
Few who consumed public school lunches in their distant childhood remember them being models of stellar nutrition, yet there was no pretense that they were. Friendly’s Sundae Cups were sold next to buttery mashed potatoes drenched in artery clogging gravy, wilted string beans and fatty, mystery meatloaf. Many of us played it safe by bringing a bag lunch every day.
With the Obama Administration, First Lady Michelle Obama has been leading a nationwide movement to combat childhood obesity with the Let’s Move campaign, including a focus on improving the quality of food in schools. This spring, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) released new proposed standards for school lunch, encouraging less amounts of sugar, sodium, saturated and trans-fats in schools foods and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
Yet now a childhood dream is coming true: pizza appears to have a chance of slipping into the vegetable category. According to Monday’s final version of a spending bill released by Congress, tomato paste on pizza will now count as a vegetable.
The USDA initially revised nutrition guidelines earlier this year to double the amount of tomato paste that would count as a vegetable serving, essentially disqualifying an edible pizza from the veggie category. The new congressional bill reduced that amount back down to the original two tablespoons of tomato paste, just right for a slice of pizza.
Why the 180º turn? Give thanks to food industry lobbyists.
“While it’s unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals,” a statement by the USDA said.
The school lunch proposal is based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said these changes are necessary to reduce childhood obesity and future health care costs.
The USDA had also sought to limit the number of starchy vegetables like potatoes—in the form of French fries and tater tots—to two servings per week. Lobbyists put the heat on legislators to lift the limits on potatoes in federally subsidized school meals. Last month, the Senate voted to block the potato limits, with opposition to the restrictions led by potato-growing states.
In an article in the Huffington Post, Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, “They are making sure that two of the biggest problems in the school lunch program, pizza and french fries, are untouched.”
This bill also delays a regulation on using more whole grains by requiring further definition of what a whole grain is. It also sets a requirement for further study on long-term sodium reduction requirements.
According to the Huffington Post, frozen pizza suppliers to schools, the salt industry and potato growers lobbied Congress, requesting these changes.
“It’s a shame that Congress seems more interested in protecting industry than in protecting children’s health,” wrote Wootan.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the annual health cost of obesity is an estimated $146 billion. With more than a third of this country’s children and teens being overweight or obese, the government needs to start shifting its focus and commitment on public health rather than special interest groups. That’s where the long-term savings and investment in our future truly lies.
Instead of substituting pizza for carrots and kale, the school cafeteria should be serving pizza alongside them.