Dr. Weeks’ Comment: This is silly to the point of criminal absurdity. Now the government says you are eating a healthy vegetable if you are eating pizza… Shame on the rule makers.
Pizza still counts as a veggie in schools
- Article by: JIM SPENCER and MIKE HUGHLETT , Star Tribune staff writers
- Updated: November 20, 2011 – 8:54 PM
Rules to tighten nutrition standards were blocked with Minnesotans’ input.
Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune
WASHINGTON – Pizza as a vegetable? Most members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation don’t have a problem with that.
Minnesota’s U.S. senators and six of its eight representatives intervened or voted in some way to block a rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would have stopped a slice of pizza from being counted as a vegetable serving in school cafeterias.
Child nutrition advocates had sought the rule change at a time when childhood obesity has become a public health crisis.
Regulations protecting pizza as a vegetable were included in an agriculture bill that became part of a stop-gap budget Congress passed last week. Tomato paste in pizza sauce is the reason it qualifies under federal school nutrition guidelines.
If the USDA had prevailed, school cafeterias would have had a difficult time serving pizza without spending more on other vegetables to serve with it — a potential blow to Minnesota’s Schwan Food Co., the country’s largest supplier of school lunch pizzas.
In June, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to express concern about changing the vegetable rating for tomato paste. “Tomato paste contributes dietary fiber, potassium — a nutrient of concern for children — as well as Vitamins A and C,” Klobuchar wrote. “I believe we must focus on increasing fruits and vegetables rather than decreasing specific foods that provide an important source of essential nutrients.”
Republican Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Education Committee, wanted all proposed changes in school nutrition scrapped because he argued that they cost too much. “I strongly encourage you to withdraw the current [proposals],” Kline, who has received $4,000 in campaign contributions from Schwan since 2008, wrote to Vilsack.
Some members of the Minnesota delegation who questioned the USDA said they wanted pizza and other nutritional rules set by regulators, not by Congress.
Sen. Al Franken, who received no campaign funding from Schwan, wrote a letter challenging the science of the new USDA pizza policy. The Democrat also signed another letter with other senators questioning limits on servings of starchy vegetables such as potatoes or corn.
Still, he said that he wanted to get information, not see pizza labeled a vegetable by an act of Congress. “They way this was done you can have French fries and pizza every day [in school cafeterias],” Franken said. “That’s just awful.”
Awful perhaps, but Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said challenges posed by Franken and others in the delegation set the stage for keeping pizza a vegetable and undermined healthier diets for school kids.
“It’s not that a whole wheat slice of pizza can’t be a healthy food,” Wootan said. “But it shouldn’t count as a vegetable.”
In a Nov. 1 letter, Franken asked Vilsack for scientific justification for the change in tomato paste ratings because it could “affect how food manufacturers produce certain products, such as pizza, and the way these products taste.”
Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, whose district is home to Schwan and who has received $6,000 in campaign contributions from the food company since 2008, offered strong support for the current interpretation of tomato paste. “I just disagree with telling people how to eat,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, did not want to “be picking winners and losers amongst the different vegetables,” a spokeswoman said.
Like most of the Minnesota delegation, Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack and Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum voted for an agriculture appropriations conference bill that left pizza as a vegetable. Republic Rep. Michele Bachmann voted for an earlier House ag bill that took away all nutritional guideline changes.
Only Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen voted against the conference bill.
It was Klobuchar’s intervention that frustrated many nutrition advocates, because her letter mirrored and sometimes duplicated Schwan’s and the frozen pizza industries’ objections to the new rules.
“It was disappointing to see the letter coming from a member we consider one of the champions of child nutrition,” said Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “It addresses all the key points from Schwan’s.”
Klobuchar, who has received $3,500 in donations from Schwan to her 2012 reelection campaign, declined an interview. In a statement, a spokesman said that the senator did not ask the USDA to undo the new rules and that she bases policy decisions on what she thinks is best for Minnesota.
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