The People vs. The Pizza Lobby

Back in the early days of President Ronald Reagan’s tenure, the USDA, as a part of proposed budget cuts, issued a proposal that would have reclassified condiments like ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables, a move that would have allowed public schools to cut out a serving of cooked or fresh vegetable from hot lunch program child-nutrition requirements. It never passed because it’s obviously so ridiculous—but isn’t it a hilarious gaff? They must not have known about childhood obesity in the 1980s! Wait—what is that you say? A few weeks ago Congress dismissed USDA healthy school lunch reform proposals and decided to count pizza sauce as a vegetable?!

Yes. It’s no joke—although this move by Congress has been mocked extensively by critics, including SNL’s Seth Meyers and Kermit the Frog. Congress' decision to place pizza sauce among the ranks of broccoli and spinach came on the heels of the USDA’s new healthy school lunch proposals, which predictably drew criticism from the food industry lobby. Among the controversial changes proposed were:

  • Limits on starchy vegetables to two servings a week. However, at the behest of the potato lobby, the Senate passed an amendment to the USDA’s appropriations bill to block any restrictions on potatoes.
  • Preventing tomato paste on pizza from counting as a vegetable.

I guess we'll skip the semantics (tomatoes are actually fruits, but in arguments this ridiculous it’s wise to pick your battles). But pizza is mostly cheese and white flour, not tomato sauce, and tomato sauce is hardly tomatoes and in fact tends to include shockingly high concentrations of sodium and sugar. The leap of faith required to label pizza a vegetable is totally illogical and downright dangerous to the health of our children.

Back in the Reagan days, the administration got tomatoes tossed in its face by Congress for proposing something so clearly not in the best interest of school children. So what’s with today’s Congress undermining the Obama administration’s efforts to improve school lunch? The bottom line: dollar signs and the frozen pizza lobby. It’s ok to laugh a little at this—yes, there is a frozen pizza lobby. Unfortunately they carry enough weight (ahem, money) with Congress that our representatives can turn a blind eye to the fact that the percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period. This has contributed to the skyrocketing number of children with pre-diabetes or diabetes, and conditions later in life such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer and osteoarthritis. Now, one third of children in the US are overweight or obese—and most of these children receive 40 percent of their daily calories from school lunches.

Given the situation, what kind of person could lobby against healthier school lunches? We at Ecocentric are not in the business of figuring out what makes junk food lobbyists tick, but however these guys manage to sleep at night, the food industry spent $5.6 million lobbying against the new rules. As part of their campaign, they preyed on the fears of school officials, especially the ones in big cities, who were concerned about how the changes might affect their ability to feed impoverished students. The changes were expected to increase the costs of school lunch by 14 cents, which isn’t a huge amount when one takes the long view, because in the end, the medical bills of an obese generation will end up costing the taxpayer more.

Lobbyist groups, disregarding this logic, claimed that the changes would infringe on “choice,” saying the federal government shouldn’t have the right to tell schools what they serve in cafeterias (apparently, this job falls to industrial food companies with dollar signs in their eyes). And here’s an irritating reminder for all you outraged parents and taxpaying citizens—we're footing the bill for these programs!

In addition, healthier kids fed more nutritional lunches are better prepared to learn – so it stands to reason that kids fed less nutritious meals will do poorly in school and maybe too undereducated to get a decent job with benefits like healthcare, thus costing taxpayers more in the future, too.  This is clearly an issue with deeper repercussions than kids not being given the “choice” (bear in mind that the USDA was not even seeking to ban pizza from school lunch – even we think that would be pretty radical – just to keep it classified as what it is, mostly starch and fat) to eat unhealthy lunches, and one that parents and educators alike can get behind. Together, as concerned citizens, we make up a large and potentially quite powerful interest group, and maybe we can pry Congress away from the stale, greasy grasp of the frozen pizza lobby and get them back on the side of the children they vowed to protect.