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The WashPo Gets It Wrong, And a Few Final Words on Pizza = Vegetable

Reposted with permission

Sameer Siddiqi of the excellent @ObesityPolicy Twitter feed alerted me this morning to a piece on the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog entitled, “No, Congress did not declare pizza a vegetable.” In it, writer Sarah Kliff attempts to calm the ruffled feathers of school food reform advocates like myself who are outraged by Congress’s watering down of school nutrition standards last week under pressure from food industry lobbyists. Kliff soothingly reassures us:

There’s just one little misperception: Congress didn’t declare pizza to be a vegetable. And, from a strictly nutritional standpoint, there’s decent evidence that lawmakers didn’t exactly bungle this decision.

On the former point, I’m entirely in agreement. While this technicality was missed in a lot of the media coverage last week, my post and others made clear that a serving of pizza already qualified as a half-cup serving of vegetables due to its tomato paste content, and USDA was attempting to end this practice by changing the way the tomato paste would be measured (by actual volume, instead of allowing two tablespoons – the amount on a slice of pizza – to stand in for a half-cup serving of vegetables.)

But Kliff’s support of Congress’s action last week is both poorly reasoned and misguided. First, Kliff does a nutritional analysis of tomato paste to show it stacks up reasonably well against some fruits and vegetables. That’s fine — I acknowledged in my own post that a slice of pizza is not without nutritional benefits. But she seems to believe, amazingly, that school food reformers are upset because they simply wanted more tomato paste on pizza: As for the half-cup of tomato paste at the center of this debate, it would no doubt have had more nutrients than an eighth-cup. Advocacy groups were disappointed to see the regulatory change blocked. More tomato paste would mean more pizza sauce, would mean more potassium and fiber. But the smaller serving, in strictly nutritional terms, looks a whole lot like the larger serving of some of the most common fruits and vegetables we consume.

Seriously? She thinks that was the cause of our concern?

Of course, the real issue is that when pizza counts as a vegetable, it knocks other vegetables off the tray. So yes, it’s true, as Kliff says, that a “cafeteria worker can’t just pile a slice of pizza on a plate and say she’s serving salad,” but due to Congress’s actions last week, now she doesn’t have to serve that salad at all! In an era in which one out of three American children is already overweight or obese, why obstruct a rule that would expose children to healthier meal choices in their school cafeteria? Why support an action that will result in more pizza versus less for kids already eating far too much of a food that ought to be viewed as a special treat? We know the answer to those questions: the money and influence of Big Food, and a moral failure by this Congress to stand up for the health of American kids. (Check out Appetite for Profit‘s excellent critique of Congress.)

Finally, I just don’t know what to say about the conclusion of Kliff’s piece:

Moreover, it’s far from clear how much this decision matters for what students actually eat. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture writes guidelines for what school meals should look like, few schools actually follow them. Just 20 percent of schools served meals that met federal guidelines for fat content, according to a 2007 USDA audit.

So, just because some schools flout USDA rules (and, by the way, that’s often due not to negligence or nefarious intent, but a lack of adequate funding), we ought to throw up our hands and not care what the rules look like? Gee, what a great way to set public policy.

Moving on from Kliff’s piece, a few more things to share on pizza=vegetable before we leave this topic behind (at least for now). I was speaking with a source familiar with Congressional legislative procedure, and he reminded me that the agricultural spending bill which gutted the pizza and potato school food rules will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, i.e, September, 2012. That means there will be another opening for advocates to get the rules reinstated at that time. But whether there will be the political will to do so remains to be seen; on the eve of a presidential election, and with Mrs. Obama remaining curiously silent about all this even now, the prospects don’t look good.

There has been some great reporting about this issue that’s worth reading for its big picture analysis. Check out Michele Simon’s Appetite for Profit post cited above, Dana Woldow’s piece today in Beyond Chron which views the pizza issue in the larger school food regulation context, and another solid piece in the Huffington Post by Kristin Wartman.

The fictitious @PizzaLobby Twitter feed continues to crack me up.

And finally, if you haven’t seen Saturday Night Live’s hilarious take on the issue, you can watch it here on the Huffington Post website.


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