If there were any lingering doubts as to whom our elected representatives really work for, they were put to rest Tuesday when Congress announced that frozen pizza was a vegetable. The United States Congress voted to rebuke new USDA guidelines for school lunches that would have increased the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables in school cafeterias and instead declared that the tomato paste on frozen pizza qualified it as a vegetable.
For this we can thank large food companies — in this case ConAgra and Schwan — which pressured Congress to comply with their financial interests. It simply doesn’t suit the makers of frozen pizza, chicken nuggets and tater tots for schools to offer real food in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Many conservative lawmakers are also insisting that the federal government shouldn’t tell people what to eat. This is the same argument Sarah Palin used against Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to the rallying cry, “nanny-state.”
But the government clearly does not control the food Americans eat. Corporations do. In this case ConAgra and Schwan are quite literally determining what the vast majority of our school children will be fed in school cafeterias: A veritable chemical concoction made to look like pizza. These are the ingredients for the “traditional 4×6 school pizza” made by ConAgra:
CRUST: (Enriched wheat flour (bleached wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, soybean oil, dextrose, baking powder (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminum sulfate, cornstarch, monocalcium phosphate, calcium sulfate), yeasts (yeast, starch, sorbitan monostearate, ascorbic acid), salt, dough conditioners (wheat flour, salt, soy oil, L-cysteine, ascorbic acid, fungal enzyme), wheat gluten, soy flour).
SAUCE: (water, tomato paste (31 percent NTSS), pizza seasoning (salt, sugar, spices, dehydrated onion, guar and xanthan gum, garlic powder, potassium sorbate, citric acid, tricalcium phophate and soybean oil (prevent caking)), modified food starch). SHREDDED MOZZARELLA
CHEESE: (Pasteurized part skim milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes). SHREDDED MOZZARELLA
CHEESE SUBSTITUTE: (Water, oil (soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil with citric acid), casein, milk protein concentrate, modified food starch, contains 2 percent or less of the following: sodium aluminum phosphate, salt, lactic acid, mozzarella cheese type flavor (cheese (milk, culture, rennet, salt), milk solids, disodium phosphate), disodium phosphate, sorbic acid, nutrient blend (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, calcium pantothenate, riboflavin and vitamin B-12), vitamin A palmitate).
It’s not even pizza, much less a vegetable. (And if you think that’s bad take a look at the ingredients for the “Pepperoni, Reduced Fat Pizza”).
This vote by Congress makes it abundantly clear who calls the shots when it comes to feeding our nation’s children. According to The New York Times food companies have spent $5.6 million lobbying against these new rules.
Meanwhile, writer Ed Bruske brings up an important, related point on The Slow Cook. He writes:
[This] also provides a vivid illustration of what happens when you go after the foods kids most love in the lunch line. Pizza is the all-time favorite school lunch food, followed by potatoes in all their guises. Essentially, the proposed new guidelines would sharply cut back on foods kids really like, and replace them with things they hate: vegetables, beans and whole grains. Turns out there are huge amounts of money at stake behind the foods beloved by the 32 million children who participate in the national school lunch program. Frozen food companies are protecting their share the best way they know how: using their clout with their local congressman.
He goes on:
Other efforts to mess with pizza also have failed. In Berkeley, for instance, elementary school children get a rectangular pizza made with a locally-produced whole wheat crust. Middle schoolers, however, insist on a round pizza, which has to be sourced through a wholesale food distributor … As I’ve learned sitting in on meals at my daughter’s school the past two years here in the District of Columbia, children will go to great lengths to avoid the foods adults consider “healthy.” Vegetables, beans and whole grains — they typically get dumped in the trash. Kids will spend inordinate time picking the spinach out of fresh-cooked lasagna, for instance, before wolfing down the pasta.
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. Bruske writes that the middle schoolers in Berkeley “insist” on round industrial pizza.
How was this notion started? The food industry literally shapes and changes the palates of our children. Constantly eating sugary, salty and fatty food products adjusts taste preference to the point that simple, real foods taste bland and unappealing. While the food industry insists that it only advertises to children “to influence brand preference,” a study published in the journal Appetite found that the food industry works to, “fundamentally change children’s taste palates to increase their liking of highly processed and less nutritious foods.”
This makes it all the more outrageous that Congress won’t stand up to Big Food to say it will not allow financial interests to trump the health and well-being of America’s children. With one out of five four-year-olds now obese, the health of our nation’s children is in such a sorry state that the food movement may have some unlikely allies on this front. According to the Associated Press, a group of retired generals criticized the move by Congress, calling the decision a national security issue since obesity has become the leading medical disqualifier for military service. Amy Dawson Taggart, the director of the group called Mission: Readiness said in a letter to members of Congress before the final plan was released, “We are outraged that Congress is seriously considering language that would effectively categorize pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program.”
But this is what Congress has done. It has let the American people down and failed to protect our children. As Michele Simon astutely points out, “Congress has hijacked the USDA regulatory process to do the food industry’s bidding.” How much longer will we allow Big Food and our government to propagate lies about food and compromise the health of our nation’s children for their financial and political gain?
Originally published on the Huffington Post
Kristin Wartman is a food writer living in Brooklyn. She has a Masters in Literature from UC Santa Cruz and is a Certified Nutrition Educator. She is interested in the intersections of food, health, politics, and culture. You can read more of her writing at kristinwartman.wordpress.com.