Congressman Jared Polis Revisits 'Pizza = School Food Vegetable'

One of the most dismaying aspects of the recent passage of new federal school meal standards was the collective caving by Congress to pressure from various food manufacturers seeking to protect profits.

The most notorious of these episodes was the fight over the continued classification of pizza as a school food vegetable. To recap:  a quirk in prior regulations allowed schools to count pizza as a school meal vegetable serving due to the nutritional content of the tomato paste. When the USDA, following a sensible recommendation from the Institute of Medicine, sought to change that rule, huge food companies like Schwan and ConAgra -- major producers of frozen pizza for the National School Lunch Program -- went into high gear and successfully lobbied against the change. (More background here and here.)  It was a stark, depressing demonstration of the power of corporate interests versus children's health.

But based on conversations I'd had with a source on the Hill, I noted in my last Lunch Tray post on "pizza = vegetable" that the battle was lost but the war was not necessarily over:  the agricultural spending bill that gutted the pizza rule will expire at the end of the current fiscal year, i.e, September 2012, creating an opportunity to revisit the issue.

Well, it looks like Congressman Jared Polis (D-Colo.) is seeking to take advantage of that window. He's just introduced new legislation, cleverly named the SLICE Act (School Lunch Improvements for Children's Education) which, according to his website, would seek to:

implement healthful standards to pizza in public schools in three significant ways:
  • Allow the USDA to accurately count 1/8 of a cup of tomato paste as 1/8 of a cup, instead of half of a cup, which qualifies pizza as a vegetable;
  • Allow the USDA to implement science-based sodium reduction targets; and,
  • Allow the USDA to set a whole grain requirement.

Given the demonstrated, unstoppable power of the food lobby to quash even the most modest anti-obesity efforts over the last few years (and if you haven't read the Reuters article referenced in the foregoing hyperlink, I urge you to do so), I have no reason to believe this bill will be any more successful than the last attempt to change this outmoded rule.

But hey, a school food blogger can dream.

And, regardless, kudos to Rep. Polis for keeping the issue alive and reminding us that:

Agribusinesses should never dictate the quality of school meals. ... Big food companies have their priorities, which include selling cheap, unhealthy foods at high profits. But parents and schools have their priorities; making sure our kids eat right because research shows a clear connection between nutrition and student performance in school.