The internets are abuzz this week with the news that Congress has declared pizza to be a vegetable. This is the kind of decisive action that reminds Americans that Congress is really working for the best interests of Jon Stewart’s ratings. I mean, really. Calling pizza a vegetable is reminiscent of the that old Bill Cosby routine about feeding his kids chocolate cake for breakfast because it has milk, eggs, and flour in it and those are all breakfast foods.
What the headlines should have read is that Congress declared pizza to STILL be a vegetable, because it was already considered one, as long as it had at least 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. New USDA nutrition guidelines would have upped the qualifying amount to half-a cup of tomato paste. And I think we can all admit that half a cup of tomato paste on a single slice of pizza would be really, freaking gross and even the pickiest eater might opt for a serving of peas to get their veggies in.
Whatever the case on when pizza reached USDA veggie status, pretty much any mom will tell her kids that pizza does not count as a vegetable (though many a college student has chowed down on pizza and declared it a balanced meal). The fact that pizza has been and continues to be classified as a vegetable in the universe of school lunches shows the remarkable lack of common sense that is applied to feeding children in schools.
The school lunch program, which provides free or low-cost meals to low-income students, has been around since 1947 and served 31 million children in 2010. For some kids, it is the only complete meal they receive in a given day. The nutrition standards updates were suggested in 2009 in an effort to make the meals more healthful but certain food industry groups objected to changes that would edge them off the steam table. Some schools and conservative lawmakers objected to new regulations that are supposedly too burdensome and too costly.
All of which is to say, that both the food industry and lawmakers and administrators appear to be thinking of money first, kids’ health second. That is more appalling to me than the idea that pizza could count as a vegetable. And it’s not like regulating schools is unheard of. The cost and regulatory burdens of No Child Left Behind were hammered down decisively and schools swallowed the billions in annual costs for standardized testing. Congress didn’t concede to reduce those burdens even though the net result has been a nation of classrooms reduced to test-prep centers. But upping the cost to add some leafy greens and whole grains into the diets of an ever-increasing population of low-income students? Unconscionable, apparently.
We are living through a recession where Neiman-Marcus is reporting record profits but Filene’s Basement is going out of business. Clearly, there are major discrepancies in how the rich and the poor are faring in these economic times. The school lunch program is supposed to be one that levels the most basic of playing fields: that of a stomach full of nutritious food. A hungry child cannot learn. An ill child cannot learn. If we can reduce both hunger and ill health in children by calling a vegetable a vegetable and pizza a treat, why are we balking at doing so? This isn’t a matter of turning all kids into the much-reviled arugula-eaters. It’s about helping families be food secure in a way that promotes long-term well-being.
Cost and inconvenience are not good enough excuses for systematically ignoring the health of children. Calling pizza a vegetable is not just a weapon for late night comedy hosts to lampoon Congress with; it’s a sign that Congress does not care as much about Americans and their kids and they say they do.