While Americans across the land gathered with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving and partake of a feast of foods, our hard-working U.S. Congress members decided to officially declare the artificial concoction of frozen pizza a vegetable in federally-subsidized school lunches.
The story is a bit more complicated than that, of course.
Once upon a time, the bright red, juicy tomato, ripe from the vine, was considered a fruit. It was filled with vitamins, antioxidants, and nutrients that helped lower the bad cholesterol clogging arteries, helped heart muscles work better, and helped build strong, healthy bones.
For some reason, the U.S. Supreme Court declared tomatoes were vegetables in 1893 and tomato sauce — the primary ingredient in frozen pizza sauce, along with additives and preservatives — has long been credited as a vegetable in school lunches.
Some of you may recall that former President Ronald Reagan proposed that the highly overprocessed product of ketchup, served as an accompaniment to greasy French fries, should be considered a serving of vegetable in school lunches, along with pickle relish, that favorite addition to healthy, nutritious hot dogs. A public backlash prevented Reagan’s anointment of ketchup and pickle relish as a serving of a healthy vegetable from succeeding.
This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture crafted the first update in a decade to the taxpayer-subsidized school lunch program. The goal was to create healthier fare, reducing starchy foods, cutting sodium levels, adding new requirements for whole grains, fresh fruit and green vegetables.
The new rules won the support of “Mission: Readiness,” a group of retired military generals advocating for healthier school lunches as one way to help produce healthier kids. Obesity, it seems, is the leading medical disqualifier for military service.
Better nutrition for kids, based on decades of research, and fueled by the stark reality of a growing health and obesity crisis for the nation’s youth. Who could argue with that?
But the revised USDA regulations didn’t even try to do away with counting the tomato paste in pizza sauce a vegetable. No, they simply said the tiny little smear of sauce on a frozen pizza isn’t enough to qualify as a half-cup of a vegetable serving.
That’s when the special interest public relations machine kicked into high gear and produced vivid graphics of frozen pizza slices drowning in tomato sauce and said, “See, if you make us add more sauce, it will look like this and then the kids won’t eat it and they won’t get their vegetables!”
Or, to be more accurate, and state directly what the special interests wouldn’t, if school lunches started offering real vegetables as vegetable servings, it would affect the $3 billion a year they make from providing 75 percent of the frozen pizzas to the nation’s schools.
Congress, unable to agree on much of anything except the certainty that it can’t agree on a darn thing of any substance, decided to agree that those innovators and job-creators in the frozen food industry know what’s best for kids, so let’s just leave things as they are. And, by the way, Congress said, that requirement for more whole grains? We think we need to conduct a study of what “whole grains” means before we implement that requirement and displease some of our other friends in the corporate food industry with ready campaign cash.
Besides, Congress said, we believe in choice and if kids want to eat the nutrient-deficient, starch-laden, chemically-enhanced processed frozen food we put in front of them at school, that’s the parents’ choice. Let future Congresses worry about the health of the nation’s young people, along with trying to figure out what to do about the deficit and the national debt and all those other things we can’t agree on.
So Congress, acting for the greater good, agreed to pass a bill barring the USDA from improving nutritional guidelines in school lunches. And that, boys and girls, is how a dollop of tomato paste in frozen pizza sauce came to be called a healthy serving of a nutritious vegetable.