Lawmakers Step Into Food Fight Over Pizza
Our economy is getting worse and worse and millions are unemployed but don’t worry the government is ready to do battle. However it’s not the economy they’re willing to battle. It’s pizza!
Congress wants to save pizza for the kids. The Obama administration wants to get rid of it. Take sides if you must but hold the anchovies.
Is pizza a vegetable? In the federal school lunch program, the answer is yes. And Congress doesn’t want that to change.
Lawmakers moved Thursday to block the Obama administration’s effort to push pizza off the plates of schoolchildren to make room for more vegetables.
The legislation, attached to a 2012 spending bill approved by Congress and now on its way to the president’s desk, also would stop plans to require more wholegrains in school food, while cutting sodium and starchy vegetables like potatoes.
“All of this is to stem the tide of the rising obesity epidemic,” said Courtney Rowe, a Department of Agriculture (USDA) spokeswoman. About 17 percent of children in the US from the ages of two through 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The proposal, she said, aims to overhaul nutrition rules governing the school lunches and breakfasts subsidized by the federal government. The bill in Congress would block the USDA from implementing the new guidelines.
Pizza — specifically, tomato paste used in the sauce — is considered a vegetable under rules for school lunch programs that get federal dollars. Now, the USDA wants to slice how much each portion of tomato paste counts toward a serving of vegetables.
The USDA doesn’t object to tomato paste counting toward some of the daily vegetable requirement for kids, but says schools rely far too heavily on the pizza — a popular if nutritionally suspect offering in school cafeterias.
The food industry complains the USDA proposal devalues its products. Omaha, Neb.-based ConAgra Foods Inc., a company that provides pizzas to schools, said it opposes the USDA plan because it would “understate the amount of tomato products … actually consumed.”
Margo Wootan, nutrition-policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, compared the current pizza nutritional allowance to the Reagan administration’s failed attempt to classify ketchup as a vegetable in the 1980s.
“Pizza should be served with a vegetable, not count as one,” she said.
The USDA spent about $14 billion last year to subsidize meals at roughly 100,000 schools across the country. The meals are provided free or at reduced cost for many children.
For schools to participate, the government requires that kids are served a minimum of two-and-a-half cups of vegetables per week. The USDA wants to double that amount, an agency spokesman said. And with pizza’s tomato paste counting less toward the minimum, schools would have to provide other vegetables with meals.
Tomato paste is nutritious and the USDA is misguided in its efforts turn the school lunch program into something it isn’t, said Steve Christensen, a former deputy director of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service during the George W. Bush administration.
“The program was designed to feed hungry children, not as some sort of federal weight-loss program,” he said.
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