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School Pizza is a Vegetable

Last week, Congress passed a bill that allegedly labels pizza as a vegetable in school lunches.  How did pizza spontaneously become a vegetable?  Has it always been considered a vegetable? Was it Congress?  Was it the USDA?  Some report it is because of lobbyists.  Although lobbyists do play an influential role, its more so the system of legislation and regulation that creates such strange laws.  Can we trust a governmental system that says a pizza is a vegetable?

A Defining Moment or Not?
Technically speaking, no strict definition of pizza as a vegetable passed Congress.   The word pizza does not even appear once in the entire congressional bill (H.R. 2112).  It changes nothing about the status quo of naming.

Strangely enough, because of the tomato sauce on pizza, pizza has been considered a vegetable for some time (despite recent notoriety.)  The secret to understanding this labeling debacle is in the sauce, specifically the tomato sauce (puree and paste). In January of this year, the USDA proposed regulations which required stricter measuring of tomato sauce.  For some odd reason, tomato sauce is credited with a fancy formula that calculates volume, rather than actual volume like other fruit pastes and purees. Actual volume provides more of the good stuff (granted, I would argue that pastes and purees aren’t necessarily healthy.)

Enter lobbyists that were not too fond of the USDA regulation, thus (successfully) lobbying Congress for legislation against it.  “This agreement recognizes the significant amounts of potassium, fiber and vitamins A and C provided by tomato paste and ensures students may continue to enjoy healthy meals such as pizza and pasta.” says Kraig R. Naasz, President and CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI).  AFFI is the national trade association which lobbies Congress for the interests of the frozen food industry.  It’s amazing how a food lobby can insert their presence into the educational institutions of our children via legislation.

The Broken System of Regulation and Legislation
While accurately measuring tomato sauce would have been a step forward, in our broken system, this change would not explicitly keep pizza from being recognized as a vegetable. Even if the USDA-proposed regulations were accepted, cooks could just add another dollop or two of tomato sauce to the top of a pizza to meet minimum vegetable standards.

The bill effectively tied the hands of the USDA from implementing and enforcing new regulations, while stuffing their pockets full of money.  The bill is a spending (appropriations) bill.  While it gives money to the USDA to be a regulator, the bill prevents it from spending money towards regulating tomato sauce, among other things.  This effectively continues to relegate pizza to vegetable status. The bill states, “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement an interim final or final rule regarding [school] nutrition programs...that requires crediting of tomato paste and puree based on volume.”

As a side note, the stereotype is to blame Republicans for bills that benefit corporations, but if we look at the voting record, more Democrats in both the House and Senate said "yay" to this bill, than Republicans. Granted, this was a spending bill, and not a pizza-as-a-vegetable bill.

Getting back to Vegetable as a Vegetable, and Pizza as Pizza
So how do we solve this systematic regulatory and legislative breakdown when it comes to something like pizza as a vegetable in schools (or even more disconcerting problems)? Congress and the USDA spend months, if not years, bickering over minute details of volumetric quantity that amount to no real change. Lobbyists still have a strong presence at the Hill, and can insert one little line into legislation that blocks regulation. Why not strip them of that power of influence?

This may sound a little out there, but why not relinquish the regulation duties of the USDA, the legislative authority of the Congress, and the prying hands of lobbyists and their constituents from adversely affecting our schools?  Instead of making this a national issue that is out of our hands, let us make this a local community issue at our schools.

Let us bring it back to the local level.  Get the USDA and Congress out of the business of deciding how to measure health and nutrition. Let social ventures like Revolution Foods attempt to solve the school health and nutrition problem that Washington and lobbyists cannot solve with just writing more laws.

What do you think?  Can we trust a governmental system that says a pizza is a vegetable, or even implies it?  What else can we do to make sure that not only is a vegetable a vegetable, but that we are getting nutrition and health into our school food programs?

Image Credit: Ellie Strikes Weird via Flickr

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Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.

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