Why Voters Are So Cynical

Pizza's not a vegetable, no matter what Congress says.

An attempt to improve the nutrition in school lunches failed last week, as giant frozen-food lobbyists successfully pressured lawmakers to abandon rules that would have fed kids less crap. Way to go, lawmakers! The rules you scuttled would have limited the amount of potatoes—read: french fries—schools could serve kids in a week, and would have required that pizza be wearing at least half a cup of tomato paste before it could be counted as a vegetable.

Lined up against the changes in rules, among others, were ConAgra, Schwan’s Food Service (maker of 70 percent of all school pizzas), and J.R. Simplot Co. (which supplies french fries to McDonald’s as well as to schools). “It’s an important victory,” a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute said of the blocked rule changes. It is an important victory, though not, as the spokesman went on to add, because it keeps companies from having to alter their products so they’re not “unpalatable” to children. It’s important because it should send every concerned parent in Philly down to City Hall to join those 99 percenters. It’s breathtaking how casually bereft of shame our members of Congress have become. One-third of all the kids in the country are obese—let’s teach them, in schools, that pizza is a vegetable, and that vegetables are good for them! That really ought to help!

You’d think a group called the School Nutrition Association would be delighted by changes that would make school lunches more … nutritious, wouldn’t you? Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t be naïve. While the SNA was eager to help when Michelle Obama was trying to get the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed last year, now that the USDA is actually attempting to increase the veggies on kids’ trays, the nonprofit is all “Whoa, not so fast.” Why? Here, let SNA president Nancy Rice explain: “Some SNA members believe that children will not have sufficient time to consume the higher volumes of fruit and vegetables required by the proposed rule.” That’s right—it takes so long to chew all that roughage! They’re only thinking of the kids!

Why does this sound so achingly familiar? Maybe because back in 1981, under President Reagan, the USDA managed to get ketchup and relish reclassified as vegetables in school lunches. Now, under President Obama, the USDA appears to be the good guys. But if the changes it proposes get shot down by a Congress that relies on lobbyists for campaign contributions, how much can the USDA do?

I’d like to believe the Republican-led House of Representatives didn’t especially enjoy blocking the rule changes because Michelle Obama has made child nutrition her special crusade. But you know, I honestly believe that gave our elected representatives an added frisson of glee. Not only could they keep big-bucks campaign contributors happy; they could kick a little dirt in the President’s wife’s face. My, what manly men! An article by former New York Times food writer Marian Burros on the Obamafoodorama website quotes NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle as saying of the pizza-as-vegetable contretemps, “It’s about profit. It has nothing to do with the health of children.” Exactly. Real men—and women—don’t beat up on kids.