Friday, November 18, 2011

Power Politics In Action: Congress Officially Makes Pizza A Vegetable

Hot lunch: How lobbyists, big food corporations, and their friends on Capitol Hill fried the Administration's school nutrition standards...

By Marian Burros
Not everyone remembers how the Reagan Administration was shamed into withdrawing its effort to put ketchup in the same category as a serving of broccoli or kale in 1981. But Dr. Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition at New York University, remembers it well. Which is why she says the Congressional bill passed on Thursday that has turned pizza into a vegetable “makes me crazy."
“It’s about profit. It has nothing to do with the health of children,” Nestle told Obama Foodorama.
The Agriculture Appropriations bill, part of the larger "minibus" that provides funding for FY 2012, was approved by the Senate on a 70-30 vote, just after the House agreed to it 298-121. It provides $18.2 billion for school lunch and breakfast programs but contains four nutrition riders, two of which prohibit the Agriculture Department from providing healthier food for children.
The proposed changes that would reduce fat, saturated fat, sodium and sugar, add more whole grains and increase the variety of vegetables and fruits in school meals are science-based recommendations from the National Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences.
Congress had asked for the update to help reduce childhood obesity, one of First Lady Michelle Obama’s signature projects, the Let’s Move! campaign. But lawmakers appear to have had second thoughts, though both Mrs. Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have repeatedly said the changes are essential to combat childhood obesity, pointing out that many children, particularly those that are disadvantaged, get up to half their daily calories from school lunch and breakfast. Better nutrition in schools is crucial for academic achievement and "winning the future," according to President Obama.

But spurred on by lobbyists for companies that might have their profit margin adversely affected by the proposed regulations, Congress is now requiring the USDA to back off from its efforts to require pizza makers to use more than 1/8 cup of tomato paste in order to call pizza a vegetable serving, and to reduce the use of potatoes (read French fries) in school lunches.

USDA wanted to reduce the frequency of potatoes along with other high-starch vegetables like corn, lima beans and peas because the IOM report said schools need to serve more orange and dark green vegetables.

The National Potato Council, in concert with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Col), made sure Congress killed the proposed potato restriction: French fries will be available every day in school cafeterias. The potato industry points with pride to Mrs. Obama’s professed love of French fries, ignoring her admonition to treat them as an occasional indulgence rather than part of a daily diet. Many schools brag that they bake the French fries before serving. But that takes place after they have been fried at the facility where they were made.

Companies like ConAgra, the industrial agriculture giant, and Minnesota’s Schwan’s Food Service, which sells 70 percent of the pizzas served in school lunches, went all out to prevent a change in amount of tomato paste required to classify it as a serving of vegetables. Under the current regulations, tomato paste has a special exception carved out for it so that the 1/8 cup used on a pizza slice is comparable to the standard serving size of ½ cup of any other vegetable. USDA wanted to take away the special exception.

Pizza purchases from schools account for the largest part of Schwan's $3 billion in annual sales, so it is not surprising hat Democrat Amy Klobuchar, the company's home-state Sentator, sent a letter to USDA warning them to leave the pizza standard alone.

At the same time Schwan's was complaining about the pending change in the pizza regulation requiring more vegetable content, it was vigorously selling itself to school lunch directors as the company that could help them meet the proposed new rules, because it had added whole grain to its pizzas and reduced the fat and sodium content.

“We’re passionate about feeding children better," Schwan's president Jim Clough told Business Wire in August. But that passion does not extend to vegetables.

The company did not return repeated calls requesting comment.

ConAgra and Schwan's have also funded the website Coalition for Sustainable School Meal Programs, which has urged parents to help change the proposed regulations, particularly the one about pizza. Barry Sackin, a former vice president for public policy of what is now called the School Nutrition Association (SNA), is running the website and has worked with ConAgra and Schwan's.

The SNA is a trade association made up of the people who are responsible for school lunches. It also has industry members, like Schwan's and ConAgra, who pay hefty fees for membership. SNA is not happy with the changes USDA is proposing. It wants another year before the changes take affect: 2013 instead of 2012. It favors leaving the exception for tomato paste, claims there is not enough whole grain in certain sections of the country to use in school meals, worries that fresh leafy green vegetables are not available in certain part of the country in certain seasons and that if they can’t put enough salt in the food children won’t eat it.

When the First Lady gathered hundreds of professional chefs at the White House in June of 2010 to launch the Chefs Move to Schools initiative, she asked them to help schools improve the meals they served. But many of the chefs were surprised to discover that the professional lunch ladies resented their efforts.

“Members of the School Nutrition Association don’t have any power,” said Nestle. “Unlike anything else in school they have to run a break-even enterprise and the only way to do it is having lots and lots of kids eat their meals, so they pander to lowest common denominator.”

The Chefs Move program, run by USDA, now has 3,700 chefs enrolled, according to Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass. But there are more than 90,000 schools participating in the federal school lunch and breakfast programs.

The other riders in the bill: Sodium and Whole Grain...
There are two other riders to the Ag bill that seem designed to slow down the process of changing school lunch rather than an outright prohibition of changes. One requires USDA to provide scientific evidence that reducing sodium is important for health reasons. That shouldn’t be too hard: the Institute of Medicine has already done that. The other requires a definition for whole grains, and USDA already has a definition.

A USDA spokesman said the Agency sees “no barriers to implementing those parts of the regulation.”

House Republicans claim these four nutrition riders will save $6.8 billion over five years, a claim USDA vigorously disputes.

According to the Agency spokesman, the changes “will have little to no affect on the cost the new standards.”

Mrs. Obama could not have imagined that her efforts to reduce childhood obesity would cause such forceful reaction from the food industry, its assorted front groups and its friends in Congress.

Another anti-Obama front group...
The Coalition for Sustainable School Meal Programs is not the first front group fighting against healthier food. The Sensible Food Policy Coalition, whose members includes PepsiCo, Kellogg and General Mills, has been working to quash the government’s voluntary nutritional guidelines for advertising food to children, quite similar to the core principles of Let’s Move!.

The coalition wants to substitute the food industry’s far less stringent standards for the guidelines put together by the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, USDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last month, there was a hearing in the House in which the members made speeches, using text provided by the coalition’s members.

“What corporations want is free reign,” said Nestle. “They want to market anyway they want, to put any kind of junk food in kids and they’ve got Congress to back them up."
"The idea the Senate is passing laws about potatoes, putting riders on bills and the senatorial staff members are writing letters to USDA about the amount of tomato paste on pizza is power politics in action.”

Though Mrs. Obama agressively championed the school nutrition legislation that offered the improved standards for meals, the East Wing would not comment on the recent developments in Congress, instead referring queries to USDA.
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Update, 11:00 AM: In Bali, Indonesia, today, President Obama signed the bill into law.
Ed. note: Dr. Nestle was recently named by Forbes magazine as one of "The World's 7 Most Powerful Foodies" -- #2 to Mrs. Obama's #1 spot on the list. Burros, the author of this post, was actually the journalist in the Reagan era who coined the idea that "ketchup is a vegetable," which is now part of the food culture lexicon.
*Obama pizza at top of post was created by British food artist Prudence Strait for the Daily Mail. Photo by Alistair Heap.