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Pizza Emerges as New Political Hot Potato

By Nirvi Shah — November 18, 2011 2 min read
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It turns out pizza is the real political hot potato when it comes to school lunches.

Although a federal spending bill that includes provisions that would allow a slice of cheese pizza to count as a vegetable on school lunch trays is headed for President Barack Obama’s desk, a petition protesting the clause is being circulated by the Democratic party.

In a plea for signatures, the request proclaims Republicans sold out students’ health to appease corporate interests.

“In this Republican Congress, almost anything is up for sale to the highest bidder and most powerful lobbyists—including the literal definition of the word ‘vegetable'—and this time, it’s coming at the expense of our kids’ health,” wrote Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

His email notes that the Obama administration was trying to undo the loophole in school meal standards that now allows pizza to be counted as a vegetable. While other vegetables and fruits are counted as a serving only if there is at least a half-cup on students’ plates, just one-eighth of a cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza counts as a serving.

Putting a full serving’s worth of tomato paste on an individual slice would have made the pizza inedible, the frozen food industry has argued. (Although they could have alternately added veggies to the pizza.)

And the USDA’s proposed switch wouldn’t have kept pizza off lunch trays. Schools would have had to serve additional vegetables with it, however.

Mr. Woodhouse said the tomato paste clause was built into school meals during the Reagan administration, the same one that tried to count servings of ketchup as a veggie.

The pizza-protection provision was built into the agriculture spending bill along with other provisions that keep the USDA from limiting the amount of starchy vegetables, including white potatoes, served at school; and cut some limits on sodium in school meals the agency proposed.

Just last year, Congress told USDA to rewrite the rules on school lunch, a measure that passed with bipartisan support. Despite the petition, The Hill reports that more Democrats than Republicans in the House approved the spending measure that contains rules about tomato paste.

That was folded into a bigger spending bill involving several departments—Commerce, Justice, Science, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development. The bill also passed the Senate.

And because of that, it’s expected that President Obama will sign the bill.