Tomato paste, like ketchup, is a GOP vegetable

Thirty years ago, the Reagan administration caused quite a stir when, as part of an effort to save money on school-lunch programs, it considered a proposal to count ketchup as a vegetable. The idea generated widespread ridicule at the time.

The Associated Press reports that a similar argument is unfolding in Washington once more. The Obama administration, hoping to combat childhood obesity and related health issues, has pushed to bring healthier foods to public schools, following the recommendations by the Institute of Medicine.

Congressional Republicans have other ideas.

The final version of a spending bill released late Monday would unravel school lunch standards the Agriculture Department proposed earlier this year. These include limiting the use of potatoes on the lunch line, putting new restrictions on sodium and boosting the use of whole grains. The legislation would block or delay all of those efforts.

The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable, as it is now. USDA had wanted to only count a half-cup of tomato paste or more as a vegetable, and a serving of pizza has less than that.

Or, put in a sound-bite sort of way, Republicans think pizzas are vegetables.

“While it’s unfortunate that some members of Congress continue to put special interests ahead of the health of America’s children, USDA remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals,” USDA spokeswoman Courtney Rowe said in a statement.

Nutrition advocates aren’t happy, either.

A group of retired generals advocating for healthier school lunches also criticized the spending bill. The group, called Mission: Readiness, has called poor nutrition in school lunches a national security issue because obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for military service.

“We are outraged that Congress is seriously considering language that would effectively categorize pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program,” Amy Dawson Taggart, the director of the group, said in a letter to lawmakers before the final bill was released. “It doesn’t take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace.”