Health: Pizza-as-vegetable battle heats up again

Colorado Congressman Polis seeks to restore common sense to school nutrition policy

Pizza may be good, but it’s not a vegetable, according to Congressman Jared Polis. IMAGE VIA WIKIPEDIA AND THE CREATIVE COMMONS.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Colorado Congressman Jared Polis squarely aimed his political guns at agribusinesses this week, unveiling a bill that would roll back last year’s “absurd decision” by Congress to define pizza as a vegetable in school meals.

At issue are U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines issued last year that would have prevented pizza from being counted as a vegetable in school meals. But after intense lobbying by the frozen food industry, Congress backed down and decided that the smear of tomato paste on a slice of pizza qualifies as a “vegetable.”

“Agribusinesses should never dictate the quality of school meals,” Polis said. “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.”

Polis said his School Lunch Improvements for Children’s Education (SLICE) Act would  protect students’ health by allowing sensible nutrition standards for pizza in the meals our children eat at schools.

Polis announced the new legislation today at Louisville Middle School in Colorado, where he was joined by Boulder Valley School District Food Service Director, Ann Cooper, who has been a leader in improving nutrition in school meals.

“For the past three years (our district) has worked hard to ensure that all of our students have access to healthy delicious food in schools,” Cooper said. “We have eliminated added transfats, high fructose corn syrup, colors and dyes. We are proud to have added salad bars in every school with fresh fruit and vegetables as well as organic milk, whole grains and instituted a priority on regional procurement. We fully support Representative Polis’ work to improve school food as our children’s health is our most important asset.”

With alarming increases in child obesity rates and other troubling indicators of child health, Congress acted to update national school meal standards in December 2010 by reauthorizing the federal Child Nutrition Act. But the current Congress undermined those standards last year when it included language in a USDA funding bill that would allow pizza to qualify as a vegetable due to the small amount of tomato paste it contains.

While tomato paste has a small amount of nutrients, pizza is loaded with sugar, salt, bread and cheese, which carry a great deal of fat and carbohydrates that turn into sugar during digestion. Categorizing pizza as a vegetable because of its small amount of tomato paste is exactly the wrong approach, as Type II diabetes rates among children and child obesity continue to climb.

The SLICE Act would restore USDA’s authority 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.

With Congress preparing to reauthorize farm and nutrition programs this year, Polis is hopeful that the SLICE Act can be incorporated into the larger agriculture bill should it be acted on in this session. A fact sheet on the bill is available here.


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