Dear Congress, Pizza is Not a Vegetable

This post is about one way we are failing our youth with respect to food, health, and life.

Congress recently passed, and President Obama signed, an agriculture appropriations bill which protects pizza as a vegetable, as well as French fries. Specifically, the tomato paste on the pizza would be countable as a vegetable. Critics express that tomato paste smeared on a thick, porcelain-white slab of bread, along with deep fried potato sticks doesn’t exactly exude healthfulness.

“It doesn’t take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace,” said Amy Dawson Taggart, an official with Mission: Readiness, a group of former military leaders who promote investment in children (1). (Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/11/17/pizza-as-vegetable-congress-proposes-new-school-lunch-bill/#ixzz1e9mcFe4I)

This action was part of the agriculture appropriations bill that, in part, supports the national school lunch program, a program run by the US Department of Agriculture which requires school lunches to have a certain balance of food groups and nutrients to qualify for federal funding.

Some articles I read on the topic indicated the bill would put no maximum limits on vegetables and I initially thought this was a good thing. But what it really means, so far as I can tell, is that there is no limit to how much fried potato can be counted as a vegetable. So no need to steam some kale. Spinach, you keep your distance. We’re doing just fine with our fried potatoes over here, thank you.

For a quote from someone who sounds really defeated and confused, here’s Ray Gilmer, a VP for United Fresh, a trade association for the produce industry:

“At the end of the day, we are going to have more fruits and vegetables served to kids. If there is a little more tomato paste or a little more pizza crust involved, that’s part of the bargain you make to create greater access.” (Source: The Packer (industry blog))

Nutrition

Tomato paste is a processed and refined version of a whole food — and therefore nutritionally inferior. It’s heated, cooked for a long duration, and strained into a thick rich paste. How much tomato paste qualifies as a serving according to the USDA? Two tablespoons.

Furthermore, pizza involves delivering this smidgen of tomato paste with a good portion of refined flour dough and fatty cheese. There are far better ways to deliver carbohydrates and calcium to children than pizza dough and cheese.

A can of Contadina tomato paste.

Image via Wikipedia

One of the problems with refined tomato, pizza dough and cheese is they are incredibly energy dense. The fiber and water have been machined out of them. You can pack a lot more food into your mouth in a shorter amount of time when the fiber and water have been removed. Fiber helps make you feel full. Fiber helps slow the transit of food through your small intestines so they can get the most nutrients out of the food. Fiber then speeds the transit of food through the colon, which helps reduce incidence of colon cancer and enables regularity. If you want to overweight and increase your risk factors for disease, the FIRST thing I would recommend is stop eating fiber and foods with normal moisture content.

Photo: School lunch with pizza (see more “school lunch pizza” images on google)

Food Politics

Who is disproportionately more likely to get this pizza fest on a tray?

School lunches are offered at lower rates (or free) to children who come from families who are barely scraping by financially. So those kids will be getting the pizza. Kids whose parents have disposable income have the freedom to choose something more nutritious. But it’s all good since their parents probably just work harder, right?

These aren’t children of people who donate money to election campaigns, and their parents are probably disproportionately unrepresented at PTA meetings and in voting booths.

What Will the Kids Eat?

It was remarked by one industry official that pizza can help deliver nutrients to children in a way they will actually eat. I’d like to take a look at this in another blog post, but my short response to that is that he’s taking the easy way out. I’d love to hear comments from parents and others who are more qualified on this aspect of the issue.

Take Action

To write to congress and express your displeasure about allowing pizza to be served as a vegetable, visit the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s website for nitfy tool to make it quick and painless.

(Thanks to the Natural Epicurean’s Leanne Valenti for sending me the CSPI link and getting me on this issue.)

Just for Fun

Photos of school lunches from around the world

(1) Mission: Readiness is rightfully concerned with the health of children and rightfully recognizes the broad impact it has on society. Their focus is on investing in children so they’ll be more military ready, about which I have mixed feelings. You take your allies where you can get them sometimes. 🙂

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