Home Health News Do You Think Tomato Paste Is A Vegetable? Your Government Does!

Do You Think Tomato Paste Is A Vegetable? Your Government Does!

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I’m… I’m speechless:

Congress is in the process of figuring next year’s agriculture budget, and the food industry is using the occasion as an opportunity to bully the USDA as it rolls out new rules for the National School Lunch Program. According to the New York Times, Big Food has already dropped a cool $5.6 million lobbying to kibosh the new rules.

Why does the industry care about school lunches? Because school cafeterias get less than a dollar a day per student in federal funding to spend on ingredients (about two-thirds of the maximum $2.94 outlay per lunch goes to overhead and labor), and many public schools lack cooking facilities altogether. So cafeterias often outsource cooking to massive entities that know how to squeeze a profit by selling lots of dirt-cheap food—companies like meat giant Tyson and its infamous heat-and-serve “Dinosaur Shaped Chicken Nuggets,” and Conagra and its frozen pizzas.

In January, the USDA came out with new guidelines governing what can go on kids’ plates. Mandated by a 2004 act of Congress ordering USDA to align school lunches with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the rules (PDF) impose two new criteria that have drawn the ire of the food industry.

First, they rewrote the requirements around vegetable and fruit servings. Before, cafeterias were required to serve at least one vegetable per day, and the definition was expansive: Tater Tots and French fries, for example, counted. Now, they limit the amount of potatoes and other “starchy vegetables” to no more than one cup (two servings) per week—and require schools to serve at least one serving per week of dark green and red/orange vegetables. Second, they no longer allow the two ounces of tomato paste that lacquer a typical frozen pizza to count as a vegetable.

To Big Food and its friends on the Hill, none of this would do. Back in October, by a unanimous vote, the Senate slapped an amendment on its ag appropriations bill that will rescind the limit on potatoes. This, despite a major recent Harvard study finding that regular consumption of potatoes in all their forms, fried and not, contributes heavily to unhealthy weight gain.

And now, reports Politico’s David Rogers, Conagra and fellow frozen-pizza behemoth Schwan are arraying their lobbying might against the new tomato-paste rule. Rogers writes:

A June letter from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, for example, celebrates the virtues of tomato paste in language that closely mirrors the arguments made by Schwan, a privately owned giant based in Marshall, Minn. And both Schwan and ConAgra have quietly helped to finance the “Coalition for Sustainable School Meals Programs” which maintains a red-white-blue—and yes green—website with the heading “Fix the Reg.”

According to Rogers, the House version of the ag-spending bill will likely contain a provision nixing the rule change, and preserving frozen pepperoni pizza’s status as a fruit/vegetable serving, so long as it harbors a bit of tomato paste. Between the Senate’s amendment and this coming move from the House, school cafeterias will remain profitable places to move cheap corporate French fries and pizza, and train a new generation to regard such dubious fare as every-day food.

In my recent post on food and Occupy Wall Street, I showed how the food system, like the financial system, is both in desperate need of reform and utterly trapped under the heel of industry influence. The gutting of the USDA’s new lunch guidelines provides yet another example.

UPDATE: I wrote this post before the House came out with its spending bill late Monday afternoon. It turns out, it’s even worse than I thought. Associated Press:

The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year, which included limiting the use of potatoes on the lunch line and delaying limits on sodium and delaying a requirement to boost whole grains.

The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. USDA had wanted to prevent that. [source]

I have a post coming up for a new series on the blog called the “Friday 5” that I was starting tomorrow, with a post titled “5 Things I’ve Learned From Spending Time In A School Cafeteria.” Seeing this, coupled with what I know… let’s just say I’m a little incredulous right now.

And a tomato isn’t even a vegetable. It’s a fruit!

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alicia November 17, 2011 - 12:14 PM

this is absolutely ludicrous.

whats all this about potatoes leading to weight gain though?? don’t me wrong i certainly don’t advocate for children being fed french fries every day of the week (or at all, really…) but i have friends who LOVE potatoes and consider them a staple of their diet….and they’re QUITE thin…
sorry i know that was totally not the point of the article.
this really does make me angry.
the pizza thing, not the potatoes 😉

seejanesweat November 17, 2011 - 12:43 PM

I wish we could boycott the cafeteria lunches until they provided a healthier lunch. If only everyone could pack their kid’s lunch every day and refuse to buy the lunch in the cafeteria. And for low income families, if the rest of us would volunteer to pack an additional lunch for a kid in a low income family every day, we could force them, the government to realize that we are not going to take this sitting down. And if these Big Food companies want to sell their unhealthy food in our cafeteria they can. They just won’t make any money because we won’t be buying it. If only…

Kim October 19, 2012 - 9:41 PM

Many kids eat this same “crap” at home too! Have you seen how many products are advertised on television?? If

JoAnna November 17, 2011 - 12:58 PM

When I used to work at an elementary school, I was appalled at what was served for a “well balanced” school lunch. The kids who brought lunches from home would trade lunchables and chips while the ones who brought sandwiches/containers were ridiculed. I started eating with my students with my homemade lunches just to cut down on the teasing.

Some of the students had to have that cold cereal and nasty school lunch just to have 2 meals per day. The “Lunchable” crowd? Well the parents had no clue. But when you feed a child processed food all the time, how can you expect that child to behave well in class and to adequately function? I didn’t say excell, just function.

Maybe our government wants a nation of idiot sheep to lead, conditioned by substandard food and mediocre expectations so that they blindly follow the status quo. Oh! I’m talking about Tea Baggers again. My bad!

Tiera November 17, 2011 - 3:28 PM

I remember seeing this on tv yesterday then sending you a link on twitter about it. The ONLY way a slice of pizza can be considered a vegetable, is if you LITERALLY eat a pile of vegetable toppings! Cheese, dough, meat, and any extras are NOT vegetables! You’re right! A tomato is actually a fruit! If you eat a tomato in its ORGANIC state, you’ll find that it’s actually rather sweet tasting. I can sit here and eat an organic tomato like an apple. They are absolutely DELICIOUS when they’re fresh and organic. Have they thought about the fact that a vegetable is only ONE item? That is….THE ACTUAL VEGETABLE! A pizza is made of several items. You don’t create a vegetable by mixing different ingredients. You GROW a vegetable and when it’s fully grown, it only makes up for ONE ingredient.

Erika Nicole Kendall November 17, 2011 - 4:00 PM

Yes, and I saw your e-mail! Thank you for sending! Had I not been up on my news game, I would’ve been e-mailing you all kinds of hugs! 🙂

Just a strange bit of trivia: the primary distinguishing point between a fruit and a vegetable is whether or not it has seeds in it. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumber… all fruit. 🙂

Tiera November 17, 2011 - 3:31 PM

Now I do use tomato paste to make my own tomato sauce…..but I also make my own paste 🙂 It’s nothing much more than blanched tomatoes.

Kim October 19, 2012 - 9:33 PM

First I’d like to say that as a director of child nutrition and as a licensed dietitian, what the USDA and food companies make accessible to us is what we have to work with. There are so many people that call school lunch “nasty” but we can’t generalize it that. This week my students had: Homemade Chicken salad, steamed broccoli, carrot and raisin salad, and pineapples on Wednesday, Homemade Chicken spaghetti, italian green beans, whole grain garlic bread, and strawberries on Thursday, and today they had Sweet and sour chicken over brown rice, vegetable medley and grapes.

The article says that pizza is a fruit/vegetable, and that is not true. In school lunch programs, pizza consists of a grain, meat, and only 1/8 cup of vegetable for the tomato sauce. Our district is beginning to make our own thin crust pizza from whole wheat tortilla with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and topping it with peppers, onions, spinach, and sprinkle it with ground beef, but the kids are not sold on it yet and my kitchen staff complains about how much work it because.

There are so many problems within school nutrition that it will take more than a boycott for it to change. You are absolutely correct when you said that we have less than $1.00 to feed each child a lunch. It’s easy to say that you can throw together some rice and beans and throw in a piece of fruit, but many kids won’t eat that. Many of the student eat junk at home, so they come to school and want junk too, and when they don’t get it, they complain to the principal, the media, or anyone else who will listen. I spent hundreds of dollars on spinach for one day, and many kids throw it away, but when they get tater tots, they love it! What I’m having to do is slowly introduce food items and change the way we serve food. But if we had more parents that would get involved and actually join nutrition advisory counsels at schools OR request that your district start one and remember that we are all in this together.

Erika Nicole Kendall October 21, 2012 - 7:20 PM

“…my kitchen staff complains about how much work it [becomes].”

I have a general disdain for employed people complaining about having to actually do their jobs. Heaven forbid you earn your paycheck. I suppose it was just fine sliding pans into microwaves, huh? ROFL

Kim October 23, 2012 - 7:30 AM

I agree, I have a staff full of cooks that were not cooking. They had been used to sliding pans in the oven, but we have made positive changes over a year and I challenge other parents to not just complain, but actually get involved and make suggestions.

Erika Nicole Kendall October 23, 2012 - 1:40 PM

Well, considering the way many Principals interact with their parent body, and considering how most DOEs generally attempt to avoid direct contact with parents, I’m curious as to what kind of “involvement” a parent can have other than active complaining, drawing attention to the problem and then shaming administrations into taking action. That’s often the reason behind COMPLAINING as opposed to getting your face cracked and feelings hurt when you’re turned away.

I’m the PTA President at my daughter’s school and, while I have a great rapport with my school’s principal, MANY can’t say the same. And, even with my great relationship with the principal, it’s difficult for “a bunch of snooty parents” to make the kind of waves that media can… and media attention is often garnered the quickest through complaining.

So, while I can understand your “challenge,” I’d ask that we speak about “complaining” in a more realistic fashion.

Kim October 24, 2012 - 4:43 PM

The child nutition director or food service director at your board of education is who you need to voice your concerns with. The principals have nothing to do with nutrition. The managers at the school can only take complaints to the director, but the district director is the administrator of all things food.

I am a director and I am pro-active and invite parents to join a nutrition advisory council, where they can voice their opinion, and i would suggest you ask the nutrition director if a similar group could be formed in your group. Also if there are multiple schools in the district that are requesting the same thing, then there is power in numbers and you may get a faster response.

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