“Vegetable” or Not, School Lunch Pizza is Chemical-Laden

Back in October I told you about what happened when the U.S. Department of Agriculture attempted to prohibit high fructose corn syrup in some canned fruits and vegetables bound for the federal School Lunch Program. Corn growers and corn trade groups rallied to the cause and arranged a meeting with UDSA representatives, after which the agency did a turnabout and allowed corn sweeteners back on the menu.

But the corn folks aren’t the only ones to show  how effective industry can be when it comes to  keeping federally subsidized school lunches not only as sweet but generally unhealthy as they currently are.

Early last week, Congress voted against proposed new USDA guidelines, the purported purpose of which was to improve the nutritional quality of the fare kids are served under the program by calling for things like lower sodium and starch content and increased amounts and varieties of fruits and vegetables.  The proposal had raised the hackles of such industry lobbies as the National Potato Council and the American Frozen Food Institute,  as well as makers of frozen pizzas, French fries and other school-bound processed foods.

Among the policies that  won’t be subject to change is the ‘eighth of a cup of tomato paste counts as a vegetable rule.’ (Translation: a slice of pizza is the equivalent of a full serving of vegetables.) While the rule is nothing new, the resulting debate over  pizza being considered a vegetable has become fodder for commentators and comedians alike (e.g. Mark Russell’s comment,“no dessert until you finish your tomato paste”).

Helping to sink the new guidelines were objections raised by many farm-state legislators, including  most of the congressional delegation from Minnesota, home to big-time school pizza supplier, Schwan Food Co. In fact, the response from Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “mirrored and sometimes duplicated” what came from Schwan and other pizza interests in objecting to the new rule.

Also questioning the proposed changes was her Senate colleague and fellow Democrat, Al Franken, who wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack at the beginning of the month expressing concerns about their lack of specificity “Because this change could dramatically affect how food manufacturers produce certain products, such as pizza, and the way these products taste, I would ask that you clarify the scientific basis of this proposed change in tomato paste and puree crediting,” Franken noted.

Where the real lunchroom problem lurks

But perhaps what was really amiss with this supposedly well-intentioned plan, however, was the fact that it didn’t go nearly far enough in affecting “how food manufacturers produce certain products.”

To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider just a few of the ingredients in a Con-Agra pepperoni pizza described as a “traditional 4×6 school pizza”:

bleached wheat flour, sodium aluminum sulfate, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, casein, milk protein concentrate, textured vegetable protein product, natural smoke flavor,  BHA, BHT,  sodium nitrite, propylene glycol (anticaking), and FD&C red #3.

In other words, a stew of unhealthy ingredients that includes artery-clogging trans fat; chemical preservatives, artificial color, and several ingredients that are likely to be disguised sources of MSG.

Huffington Post blogger Kristin Wartman hit the nail on the head by  pointing out  that the “chemical concoction” made for school lunches by ConAgra  “isn’t even pizza, much less a vegetable.” She also makes an interesting point about why kids often seem to toss  better offerings while sucking up the chemical foods, which bears repeating:

“So, the real question is, why do children want pizza, potatoes and pasta while vehemently eschewing green vegetables, beans and whole grains? This hasn’t always been the case. Keep in mind that industrial food as it exists today has only been around for roughly 60 years. Much of what we take as the truth about what kinds of food kids love and hate is largely dictated by the food industry itself. The idea that kids won’t eat vegetables is a construct invented by the food industry and reinforced by well-meaning parents, school lunch programs and government officials.

Herein lies the brilliance of the food industry — not only has it created a myriad of products but it also created the idea that children want industrial food products above all else. While most Americans have bought into this notion, it’s simply not true. Children 100 years ago couldn’t have possibly eaten the industrial foods they are eating today. But listening to parents and children now, you’d be convinced that they will only eat industrial foods.”

I couldn’t agree more. In Chemical-Free Kids, a book I co-authored several years ago, we referred to the fast food culture as the “commercial body snatchers.” Producing a kid-appropriate lunch that kids actually are willing to eat shouldn’t be such a difficult task. But the fact is that kids who have gotten into the habit of consuming ersatz, oversalted, overflavored, oversweetened foods fairly regularly develop a taste for them.

Then again, one could hardly expect The USDA, a long-time defender of the agricultural status quo, to come up with a proposal that would really address the source of the unhealthy nature of the foods kids are ingesting, both inside and outside of the school lunchroom.

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