With a pair of votes on Thursday, Congress officially preserved pizza’s status as a vegetable -- at least for another year.
The change to nutrition standards for school lunches was a triumph for the frozen-food industry, which had been fighting restrictions on the definition of tomato paste, which they say is every bit as healthful as the larger quantity of tomatoes that produced it. And a loss, nutrition advocates say, for the scientific process that has historically guided decisions about food nutrition in the federal school-lunch program.
Language changing the definitions for a serving size of tomato paste was inserted into the agriculture spending bill as part of the must-pass continuing resolution.
It was one of four policy riders that rolled back proposed rules for school-meal nutrition proposed by the Agriculture Department. The other changes prevented USDA from limiting the number of starchy vegetables—read potatoes--served each week, and slowed down new rules to limit sodium and boost the proportion of whole grains.
The USDA has objected to the changes, saying that “some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children.” The food advocacy community that had cheered the new guidelines said the appropriations riders would make for less-healthy lunches in an age of growing childhood obesity. But they said their main objection was more symbolic than substantive: Congress shouldn’t be using the appropriations process to write nutrition guidelines.
"If the success of the pizza processors and the potato growers turns on light bulbs to everyone who wants to sell to the schools, then it could have a corrosive effect,” said Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York and the author of Free For All, a history of the school-lunch program. “I don’t think it undermines the regulations. I do think it’s a very poor precedent.”
Republican members of the House Appropriations Committee say the changes will save school districts and the federal government money. “Without these provisions, the cost of these important programs would balloon by an additional $7 billion over the next five years,” says a summary of the conference report.
But the USDA says there’s no evidence that more potatoes and pizzas in lunchrooms will save schools money.
"USDA estimates that these policy riders will achieve little to no savings in the cost of the new standards for school meals," said spokesman Aaron Lavallee.
The rules proposed by USDA, the first revision of the school-lunch guidelines in 15 years, came at the behest of legislation last year that reauthorized the federal school-lunch program, which serves meals to 31 million schoolchildren. That bill increased the federal subsidy to schools for making meals and asked the USDA to develop new guidelines for what the meals should contain based on nutrition science and the federal nutrition guidelines.
The proposed rules, unveiled this spring, were designed to boost fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in meals, reduce sodium, and, for the first time, place both calorie minimums and maximums for meals.
Recognizing that children were eating a lot of potatoes at home, the rules also aimed to limit servings of starchy vegetables to a cup a week, a limit that USDA research shows is consistent with current practices at most elementary and middle schools already.
It also attempted to set new standards for tomato paste, the partially dehydrated form of the fruit used to make pasta and pizza sauces. Under existing rules, most vegetables must be served at a half cup to count as a serving. But just an eighth of a cup of tomato paste—the amount put on a typical slice of pizza--can count.
The potato growers, who lost out in the last Congress when another federal nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children stopped paying for their product, complained early and often about the proposed rules, speaking to community groups, publicizing potato-only diets, and encouraging legislators from potato-growing states to fight the language. That campaign ended with a floor amendment in the Senate to block the USDA language. The final appropriations rider, which preserved that amendment, says that money for the school-lunch program can’t be used to “set any maximum limits on the serving of vegetables.”
The frozen-pizza manufacturers worked more behind the scenes. Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, said his group has been working for months on an “ongoing education effort” for members of Congress and their staffs.
“With the potato, you will have supporters and then you have critics,” he said. “With tomato paste, it’s really an unknown issue.”
Henry pointed to tomato paste’s many nutritional virtues—vitamins A and C, potassium, and lycopene—which are found in greater proportion in the concentrated paste than fresh tomatoes, he said.
“What we object to is downgrading a perfectly good source of nutrients for no particular reason other than you may just want to eliminate pizza,” he said.
For now, the USDA is changing its final rules—due out by the end of the year—to comply with the new legislative language. Critics of the food industry say they hope that when the bill expires at the end of next year, the agency will be able to write the rules again without legislative interference.
“It’s not a good way to do policy,” said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.