A bill Congress passed in November included guidelines for federally subsidized school lunches. The next day, headlines in newspapers around the world announced that Congress had declared pizza a vegetable. As usual, the reality is more complicated.
In January 2011, the Obama administration proposed changes to school lunch rules, including a reduction in salt and an increase in whole grains. The administration also proposed changing the way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the school lunch program, treats tomato sauce.
After nearly a year of intense lobbying by food companies, school districts, and advocacy groups, Congress approved a bill that prevents money from being spent to implement the Obama menu recommendations. The bill reaffirms existing rules that allow school districts to count the tomato content of pizza as one serving of fruit or vegetable. One-eighth of a cup of tomato paste counts as a full serving, compared with half-cup serving sizes for most other fruits and vegetables. That’s because the concentrated paste packs a heftier nutritional punch than whole produce does. The health payoff from the tomato, of course, is less than impressive when it’s smothered in melted cheese and topped with pepperoni.
But the real absurdity is that Congress spends its time making decisions about what middle schoolers eat for lunch, especially since a 2007 USDA audit found that only 20 percent of schools comply with the guidelines.