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Pizza = Congress’s Favorite Vegetable

Congress may not have solved our debt crises yet, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy – busy over-ruling proposed changes to school nutrition requirements that would have helped make them healthier.

I’m sure most of you have heard the news by now. But if you’re like me and get all your news from SNL’s Weekend Update are sometimes a little slow on the uptake, you may have missed the latest controversy over pizza being declared as a vegetable by our admirable Congress. A fact so completely ridiculous, that it seems just made for a comedy skit.

Really!?! With Seth & Kermit


Click here to view on Hulu.com (if the above video doesn’t work).

Okay, so Congress didn’t really make some crazy declaration that pizza is now considered a vegetable. What they did do, however, was vote against new USDA guidelines in the agriculture appropriations bill that would have increased the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias and decreased the amount of pizza and french fries. And in doing so, they asserted the belief that a quarter cup of tomato paste is considered a serving of vegetables. Because apparently tomato paste (on it’s own) has lots of nutrients in it.

So when you take that paste, mix it with other ingredients, and put it on a pizza loaded with cheese and pepperoni, you can rest easy knowing that you are still getting a nice serving of vegetables. Add to that my second favorite vegetable – french fries deep fried in oil (they’re made of potatoes after all!) and you’ve got a well-rounded lunch.

Don’t get me wrong. I love pizza. A lot. It’s one of my favorite ways to carbo-load or refuel after a hard run. And I also know there are ways to make pizza healthier – whole grain crust, limited cheese, and lots of veggies are all positive changes you can make to your standard pie to up the nutritional value. But is the pizza served in most school cafeterias “healthy?” Not based on these ingredients:

(From the Huffington Post)

pizza ingredients

That’s hardly even recognizable as food.

There are those (like Congress, apparently) who don’t really think this is such a big deal. After all, kids are going to eat what they like, right? You can’t force them to eat fresh foods and vegetables because you make it more available. If a kid wants pizza, he’s going to eat pizza.

Without going into the behavior debate, I will simply say that the argument presented above misses the point entirely. In my mind, why this is such a big deal is twofold:

1.) It is a step in the complete opposite direction that this country needs to be heading. Obesity among children is a very real problem. It’s not just about having a little bit of extra weight on you – it’s about a medical condition that impacts your health. It’s about an epidemic that has led to the predictions that this generation of children will be the first to have shorter life expectancies than their parents (source). 17% of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 17 are obese. Not just overweight, but obese. This number has tripled since 1980 and particularly affects children of low income families (families who the school lunch programs are put in place to serve) (Source).

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2.) It is a sickening example of how money drives decisions, not interest in the public good. Apparently big food companies didn’t like what they were going to lose if this bill had been passed. As of November 1st, the food industry had spent $5.6 million lobbying against the proposal (source). And in the end, that money spoke. Loud and clear.  In a very well articulated article in the Huffington Post, Kristen Wartman writes (emphasis added):

Many conservative lawmakers are also insisting that the federal government shouldn’t tell people what to eat. This is the same argument Sarah Palin used against Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to the rallying cry, “nanny-state.”

But the government clearly does not control the food Americans eat. Corporations do.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. We face this problem in public health all the time. Our government-funded and non-profit organizations can’t compete against the lobbyists from big food and beverage companies. We don’t have the money, the staff, or the reach (not to mention the fact that it’s illegal for government employees to actually lobby for things. Minor detail.). I guess I just would have expected more from a body that is supposed to be relying on expert advice to develop and enact laws, not money from corporate lobbyists.

pizza is a vegetable meme.jpg(Source)

For further reading, I would actually encourage you to read the entire article in the Huffington Post, as well as the other articles she has linked to.

And for some comic relief, please see Marion Nestle’s post.

And now, as always, I want to know what you think. Bad decision by Congress? Or something the media (and this blog) is blowing out of proportion?

35 Responses to Pizza = Congress’s Favorite Vegetable

  1. Well I mean, Herman Cain is running for president…I’m sorry, I had to.
    Christy´s last post ..Love/Don’t Love

  2. When I saw what Congress was proposing, it did seem like the media was blowing it a bit out of proportion, BUT after looking at the ingredient lists you just posted, I am appalled. What is cheese substitute?! School breakfasts and lunches are sometimes the only real meals that kids get and I think the government could be doing a much better job when it comes to subsidies and what constitutes “healthy eating”.
    Megan (The Runner’s Kitchen)´s last post ..The best time I ever took a wrong turn

    • Exactly. Obviously media likes to twist things a certain way for the shock value. But I think the bigger issue remains – these programs and regulations really aren’t supporting health (like they should be). Instead, they just promote corporate interests. And when many kids receive their only real meal of the day from school (like you said), this is a huge problem.

  3. As a future educator, this further proves how uneducated politicians are about children and their development. If anyone has an suggestions on how to educate them, I’d love to hear them.

  4. I found the news disturbing too, but sadly, not surprising. What’s the point of having a democratic government if everything is just sold to the highest bidder?
    Jessica´s last post ..Trailblazing and Road ID Gift Certificate Winner

  5. I am such a nerd. I loved English & writing research papers, and you totally brought me back to a place where I’m excited to read academia again. This is a great argument with well-quoted sources, and although I actually hadn’t head about Congresses ruling (I live in a bubble most of the time), you have now given me a very solid viewpoint.
    Alyssa´s last post ..SFM Discount Code

  6. I think what frustrates me most is that Congress stepped over USDA. USDA received over 30,000 comments about the new school food regulations and should have been given the time to review the information. We know antidotally that a lot of schools do not count french fries towards their vegetable offering. But, there are the few that do. And the new offer versus serve language could change as well if schools are limited on what is offered. I personally think that Congress is trying to undermine the President and First Lady, as well as their initiatives to end/reverse childhood obesity. They spent over 6 months trying to removing funding from the Prevention Fund to take away from PPACA. Its one step forward, two back with this administration. Competitive food regulations are up next and likely going to be another messy battle.
    Alex @ IEatAsphalt´s last post ..Pumpkin spice and everything nice

    • Yes!! I was at several conferences this year where the organizers stressed the fact that USDA was looking for public comment – and that we should do what we could to make our voice heard. Clearly all that didn’t matter, because money speaks louder to this administration than the words of the experts.

  7. I should REALLY post the menu that Braeden gets home each month for school lunch. It is RIDICULOUS. As in crackers and blueberry pie are considered a balanced lunch. It’s OK now – because I am able to pack his lunch, but you know that becomes pretty uncool at a certain age. I seriously do not understand ANY of this, but it IS our responsibility to what we can to prevent childhood obesity. Seeing some of these kids is just SO sad.

    What’s not sad? Seth and Kermit. Love them (OK – and Jason Segel too!).
    Michelle´s last post ..November/December Book Choice

  8. The word “bad” doesn’t even begin to describe what i think of the decision by Congress. Honestly, it saddens and frustrates me so much. I have a 6 year old who is in 1st grade in public school. I make her lunch every day, but on occasion allow her to buy lunch at school because she sees it as a privilege. To her it’s something totally exciting – the responsibility of paying for her lunch and making her food choices there is a thrill for her. It makes me sad because I can’t do it more often – the food just isn’t healthy! When she does buy her lunch I ask her what she got and am always grossed out – oftentimes there is no veggie and she doesn’t even know what it was called it was so unrecognizable to her. I hope we will see changes to this in the future. Great post Lauren – I really love how you write!

  9. Gotta say… why does Congress have anything to do with what we eat? School lunch program feeds kids crappy food & wonders why childhood obesity is on the rise? I’m 100% against the government having any control over what I choose to consume. If I want soda, or salt in my food, that should always be my choice. Congress: biggest freaking time-waster of them all.

    But contrary to popular belief, it’s NOT just America. The EU just passed an actual law that states water cannot be marketed as a solution for dehydration. That’s WAAAAY dumber than the pizza thing. Because if you make pizza from scratch at home, it’s not necessarily “bad” for you. But I’ve never had anyone in any health profession tell me to “drink less water.”

    • Congress has a lot to do with what we eat. You may not agree with it, but the reality is that is how the government is set up. Sometimes it’s indirect (like in the form of crop subsidies that explain why certain crops – like corn – are in everything) and sometimes it’s a lot more direct, like in the form of the National School Lunch programs. The current regulation that’s been the source of so much media debate is such a big deal because it influences what schools can serve to kids. It’s not the school’s fault for serving the crap – what they serve is highly regulated and controlled by the government. This is a huge issue because of the National School Lunch program that serves low income populations (not everyone has the privilege of packing their own lunch and many children rely on the meals provided by their schools). Based on these regulations, schools get reimbursed by the government for certain foods that they serve. The argument that government should have less control over those foods is what caused this issue in the first place. Continuing to classify tomato paste as a vegetable (instead of changing how tomato paste and potatoes are classified to make room for more fresh fruits and veggies) doesn’t mean that schools are now going to take more initiative to come up with healthy meals for children. It means that pizza can qualify as a reimbursable meal – not only for the schools but also the big processed food companies (like ConAgra) that sell this stuff.

      Unfortunately, in today’s society what you eat is not just a simple matter of choice for many families. Your environment, corporate interests, and government regulations all impact this “choice” more than many people realize.

      That being said – I saw that article about the EU law. And I agree how completely ridiculous it is. And what I waste of time that 3 year investigation was.

      • I think I wasn’t quite as articulate as I would’ve liked to have been… I completely agree that it’s 100% stupid for Congress to call pizza a vegetable. My only argument is that I don’t need (& none of us should need) Congress to tell us that to begin with. Mine is definiteley a political argument, so I don’t want to stray too far into that side of it… but honestly, who really needs Congress to tell them pizza is/is not a veggie? I have faith that people know what is/is not good for them & make choices based on their own personal desires. And yes, I think a lot of those choices are really stupid (health-wise), but I don’t want anyone interfering with their right to be that dumb.

        I love the blog, by the way. All the female running bloggers I read don’t wear hats… you’re the only one I follow that wears a hat. I like that. I have bangs; hats are necessary for running to hold those crazy bangs back! 😀 Weird comment, but completely true. 😀

        • Thanks for explaining more Bonnie! I realize it’s a difference in political opinion, and I completely understand your frustrations. I think the frustrating part for me is that even though I agree that we don’t need Congress to tell us whether pizza is or is not a veggie (I think most people would think that’s ridiculous) they do control the standards for school lunch programs. So as far as reimbursable school lunches are concerned, they do need Congress to tell them what does and doesn’t count.

          Anyway, thank you for the comment about my blog! I do love my running hat, especially now that I’ve cut my hair short and it doesn’t really fit in a ponytail. :)

    • To put it in very simplistic terms, Congress is involved because Congress controls the purse. As Lauren said, this was part of the appropriations process. Congress subsidizes certain types of agriculture (such as corn), and Congress controls the funding that goes to public schools and to provide low-cost or no-cost meals for low-income students. They can regulate the food requirements because they regulate how money is spent.

      Also, USDA has internal issues, in that it is both a regulator in some parts of the house, and a product marketer in others (see this article for an intro to that issue: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/us/07fat.html?pagewanted=all). But that’s another whole topic!

  10. Absolutely ridiculous!

    I can’t even talk about this…it gets me all fired up!
    Jocelyn @ Enthusiastic Runner´s last post ..Things I Am Loving Right Now…{12}

  11. Oh my gosh this made me so mad after reading the article.. I don’t even know what to say!
    Sarah´s last post ..Marathon High?

  12. The government’s goals are not to make our country healthy, but to control it’s people and they do this with food. It all started with pasteurizing milk and now they are pasteurizing eggs and vegetables (basically microwaving everything good out of them).

    The only fresh real eggs you can even buy now are those from small ma-and-pop shops.

    The best thing we as bloggers can do is help educate the public on how to grown their own gardens and cook their own food.
    Jim @ Going Fitness Blog´s last post ..Lose more weight by spending less money.

  13. Great post! I totally agree. I love it when you right about public health issues like this. The amount of control that corporate ag has over our country is truly scary. And the fact that congress is unable to rely on common sense is also scary.

  14. Bad decision by congress! Our children are going to grow up with poor eating habits. Luckily, parents can do something about it by teaching them what is healthy/not healthy. Not going to lie, I loved school lunches but gained better eating habits in college (when your metabolism goes down). While it’s hard to fight the government, I’m going to keep on eating healthy; find foods/recipes that are yummy and good for you and pass this down to my future generation. In terms of Congress–I can’t believe a bunch of grown-ups can actually believe in all the things they pass. Maybe it would help if we took their BMI? :)
    Sokphal @ Life as a Classroom´s last post ..Richmond Marathon Recap!

  15. When I first heard about this it blew my mind…and then I remembered that I probably shouldn’t have expected any different!
    Kristin @ Everyday Is Run Day´s last post ..The First But Not The Last

  16. Omg, that skit is hilarious. And no, this is not an issue being blown out of proportion…childhood obesity is a very real problem in our country!
    Rach@ Girl on the Run´s last post ..Pages

  17. Lauren, this is such a well-written, factual post. When I heard the news, I was shocked and appalled. With child obesity becoming more and more rampant in this country, you would think Congress would do what it could to influence and change what young kids are eating. They may not have control over what is consumed for breakfasts or dinner, but changing even 5x meals a week would be a step in the right direction.
    Thanks for the awesome post!
    Michele´s last post ..My First Ultra

  18. Yum I love pizza…and probably even eat too much of it. After my run yesterday I stopped by my local pizza place and some woman waiting for her pizza judgingly said “so you run and then eat pizza?” Yes indeed I do. That is definitely NOT to say it should be considered a vegetable! Ridiculous! That skit was hilarious :) I also hope my pizza was made with cheese not CHEESE SUBSTITUTE. ICK.
    Celia´s last post ..the half curse

  19. Hi there! I’m late to the party, my apologies. So, I love the skit and I love how well-written this post is. I agree with everything you wrote. BUT. Here’s the BUT. My aunt is the Head of Nutrition Services in her district, feeding over 10 schools. She works with farms, local stores and chefs to get the best possible plate of food delivered to the kids at her schools. She uses a program called Farm to School which is a nationwide movement that teaches kids about agriculture and helps them understand where food comes from. My aunt says that serving local foods in schools is part of evolution and cannot be rushed. Which brings me to my next point: healthier foods in schools is a work in progress, all of this takes time. Apparently the tomato sauce used in pizza has ALWAYS counted as a vegetable so this isn’t a new concept. My aunt agrees that we need to find ways to get healthier alternatives to this but the truth is, you have to give the kids FOODS they WILL EAT. Maybe adding more vegetables on the pizza will help? In general though, I think my aunt and her schools district is doing a really good job of introducing the kids to new local healthy fruits and vegetables into their diet and I hope more schools will follow suit.
    LIZZY´s last post ..On Running…

    • Your aunt seems to be doing a great job. And she should be commended for the great work that she’s doing. It’s too bad there aren’t more people like her who are in charge of nutrition for schools!

      BUT (here’s MY but) the issue isn’t these programs. The issue is that money seems to talk much louder than concern for health does. I know that the tomato sauce has always counted as a vegetable – the new rulings would have just given it less “credit” (right now I believe 2 TBS are counted as a full 1/2 cup, which is a serving. The recommended changes would have simply counted a 1/2 cup as a 1/2 cup). Maybe I didn’t really make it clear in my post (sorry!) but the bigger issue isn’t really whether or not tomato paste is a vegetable. It’s that the USDA recommended changes to the standards, collected a bunch of comments from the public and experts all over the country in support of those changes, and then Congress ignored them. Instead of making revisions that could have been another step toward making lunch programs healthier, they made a decision that looks out for the big food corporations who spent a ton of money lobbying against the changes. I just find the whole situation frustrating.

      • I vote for Pizza=Congress’ Favorite Vegetable Part II!!! I think I needed to hear a little bit more about the USDA research. I love these posts Lauren because I don’t deal with these issues on a daily basis but I wish I did in my job. I wish I had more of an impact on people’s lives like you do!
        LIZZY´s last post ..On Running…

  20. This is a great post Lauren. And the topic just infuriates me on so many levels, all in which you lay out perfectly. It’s sad that something so obvious – the fact that actual vegetables and fruits are much better and healthier than cafeteria pizza and french fries – can actually be over-ruled in Congress because of everything ELSE that goes on down there with lobbying, money, influence, etc. Especially when the childhood obesity epidemic is staring at them in the face. So much work to be done. SO MUCH.
    Kelly´s last post ..Distractions & Cranberry Bread

  21. As a teacher who sees the lunches most days I will tell you that regardless of what they put on the plates the students overlook the vegetables and fruit options often. They take it and throw it away. As I said, my district is #1 in childhood obesity in this country. Mid morning snacks are chips and high sugar juice. I’m waiting for chocolate milk to be banned because my ADHD kids always choose it and are off the wall after lunch. All this to say: IT STARTS AT HOME. Good eating habits start at home, and will enable you to make better choices when you’re not at home. These kids, pizza or pasta or chili with chips, will forego the good food for the technically unhealthy choices. Parents need to be educated. I try with about 60 kids a year in my yoga fitness club, but communities need to get low cost farmers markets, grocery stores should do cooking demonstrations for low cost healthy meals, and communities should have exercise/activity programs in place everyday. Oh what a different healthier world it would be!!!
    Kristin miller´s last post ..Post-NYC Marathon days of Glory Part 3: Runner’s Depression and back

  22. This is something that is absolutely not being blown of proportion. I’m shocked that our “leaders” can’t come together to do anything meaningful other than to, while accepting backdoor handouts, declare a pizza a vegetable.

    Seriously? This is what my vote gets me? A bunch of lazy, greedy politicians? I’m just so disillusioned with this country these days.
    Megan @ On the Road Again´s last post ..BumpWatch: Week 32

  23. You are not blowing this out of proporation at all. It is terrible just how true your statement is that money makes decisions, and in this case, kids are going to be the ones paying the price for it. This decision by congress is just sending America further down a path to an unhealthy lifestyle and a wharped sense of what healhty truly is. I can’t believe that pizza sauce is considered an adequate replacement for a side of vegetables. I hope the attention this vetoed bill is getting will help future attempts to improve the outcome of future attempts to healthify school lunches. Thanks for sharing this post. Such an important issue. Very disappointed with Congress on the outcome this time around though :(
    Nancy@triathletestrials´s last post ..Confessions of a Night Time Runner…

  24. I probably won’t write as eloquent of comments as above – I’m sorry! I can’t wait to read both of those articles (Marion Nestle is actually an NYU professor).

    Congress needs to sit in on a pediatric clinic at a large hospital. In fact, at one of mine, we have a “pediatric endocrine” clinic which is mostly very overweigh kids with Type 2 diabetes, HTN, etc. I once saw an 8 year old who weighed as much as me. So sad.

    At least I can rest assured that I don’t need a salad with a slice of pizza now? Sure….
    Meggie´s last post ..Diverted

  25. I don’t really think this was a good idea for Congress to do…I mean, if anything, it’ll mess up statistics even more (kids are eating more vegetables than ever!! or not…). We’re an unhealthy country as it is and the health care here is ridiculous. We spend more than any other country yet we’re not even close to the top in health related statistics. It’s so sad. The fact that money is much more of a contributor here instead of the actual HEALTH of people drives me crazy. Food is basic…and we’re making it way more complicated than it needs to be. I understand “big business” (or not really….all the financial stuff of the world kind of goes over my head…but we won’t talk about that now), but at the expense of our health? It’s silly. Especially since so many children rely on school lunch as possibly their only solid meal of the day. I know there are some good programs in place trying to teach kids about healthy eating, but this is definitely a step in the wrong direction.

  26. […] influence too. Unfortunately I don’t think a congress that is dumb/lazy/selfish enough to consider pizza a vegetable is going to make the changes necessary to make our industrial food situation any […]

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