Journalists, bloggers and comedians have had a field day with the headlines over a Congressional bill that would count the tomato paste used on pizza as a school lunch vegetable. However, the news was really about a much larger issue: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's efforts to improve the nutritional quality of federally-funded school lunches.
The current nutrition standards for school lunches are based on federal dietary guidelines from 1989. After the guidelines were updated in 2005, the USDA developed a plan to bring the school lunch program in line with them. The plan included:
- Cutting back on ingredients like salt and potatoes -- the plan called for a gradual sodium reduction over 10 years. In elementary school lunches, for instance, the average level would fall from 1,377 milligrams per week now to a maximum of 640 mg per week in 2021.
- Reducing saturated fats and total calories -- The USDA recommends that saturated fats contribute less than 10 percent of total calories.
- Boosting fresh fruits and vegetables -- the plan specified that once a week, lunches offer at least one half-cup serving of each of the following items: dark green vegetables (such as spinach or broccoli), orange vegetables (carrots, squash), legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans), starchy vegetables (white potatoes, corn) and "other" vegetables, including tomatoes.
- Increasing whole grain servings -- The USDA wants to see at least half of the grain servings be whole-grain; in two years, all grain servings should be "whole-grain rich."
What about tomato paste?
Under current regulations, an eighth of a cup of tomato paste is considered the nutritional equivalent of a half-cup serving of vegetables, since that's how much tomato it takes to make it. But the USDA noted in its proposal that other pastes and purees don't get the same treatment -- they get credit only for the "actual volume as served." That "loophole" is what makes it possible for a slice of pizza to count as a serving of vegetables.
The USDA acknowledges that one-eighth of a cup of paste contains half a cup's worth of tomato solids. And that one-eighth cup is a nutritional match for some half-cup servings of other produce items. For example, an eighth cup of tomato paste has more vitamins A and C than a half cup of canned green beans, as well as similar calcium levels and about half the iron and fiber -- all for a similar calorie count.
Despite the Department of Agriculture's good intent, let's be honest, no one is going to eat half of a cup of tomato paste on pizza or as a side serving. Children need to eat more vegetables, and we should push for increased intake of conventional vegetables and not look toward pizza as providing a satisfactory substitute.
Although it takes a lot of exposure before children will start accepting new foods, the introduction needs to start somewhere. This doesn't mean pizza should be taken off the menu, but what's wrong with adding veggies to it?
Vegetable and fruit consumption is important for children for a variety of reasons. For instance, it gives children the essential vitamins and nutrients they need to grow and helps them establish healthy eating habits at an early age. In fact, the Red Light Green Light Eat Right Program requires that a fruit or vegetable serving be eaten with each meal and snack.
If your child's school lunch isn't making the grade, talk to your school food service director and share your concerns. We need to make our voices heard if we are going to boost the nutrition being served to our children.