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Let Them Eat... Pizza?

November 24, 2011 | Matthew Marsom | Dialogue4Health

It's that time of year again when Americans gather together to give thanks, celebrate family and friendship, and, of course, enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving feast. As you come to the table in the coming days I don't question that you'll know your turkey from your green beans and your dinner rolls from your Brussels sprouts. As for members of Congress? Well, maybe not so much.

In fact, our elected representatives in Washington, DC, seem to have a lot of trouble understanding the difference between healthy, fresh fruits and vegetables and processed school lunch pizza. In the last week, Congress passed legislation that set funding levels for vital U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and the National School Lunch Program. The legislation also included a continuing resolution that will keep the federal government operating through December 16. So far so good, right?

Hold on, though. Tucked away in the legislation are added provisions that limit the USDA's authority to implement strong, science-based nutrition standards for school meals that were established last year in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Our friends at the California Food Policy Advocates have prepared an excellent overview of the issue you can read here, including details on the legislative language from the Food Research and Action Center. Specifically, as a result of this Congressional action, USDA will be unable to issue a rule that includes the Institute of Medicine's recommendations to limit potatoes and other starchy vegetables. USDA will also be prohibited from changing crediting requirements that currently allow the tomato paste on pizza to count as a vegetable.

The new language will help pizza manufacturers to market their product to schools by continuing to give added credit for the vegetable content of tomato paste. USDA will also need to abide by certain conditions in setting policy to reduce sodium and increase whole grains.

I addressed this issue  on KCUR, Kansas City Public Media's Up to Date during an interview to discuss the impact of the Farm Bill on public health and nutrition priorities. At a time when we continue to see unacceptable levels of childhood obesity, and when today's generation of young children may have a lower life expectancy than their parents due to diet-related disease and illness, it's a travesty that Congress says that a slice of pizza is a vegetable. This has absolutely nothing to do with what is right for our children's health. It doesn't even have anything to do with the budget deficit or the economy. It does have everything to do with the deep pockets of the processed food industry and the influence of their lobbyists on our elected representatives.

Enough is enough.

We need to let our senators and representatives know how disappointed we are in their actions to undermine efforts to improve our children's health. I urge you to take action here. As we approach the holidays, the sad truth is that too many Americans, particularly in this time of economic trouble, struggle to put food on the table for their families. The USDA nutrition programs, including school lunch and breakfast, are critical in helping low-income children get the food that they need. The least that we --and Congress--can do is make sure this food is healthy.

Matthew Marsom is vice president of public health advocacy and policy at PHI. Follow him on Twitter @PHI_policy.