WASHINGTON -- The notion that Congress could consider pizza a vegetable may be just too much to digest.
The SLICE Act, for School Lunch Improvements for Children's Education, has been introduced in response to congressional action last fall ensuring that two tablespoons of tomato paste slathered on pizza could continue to be classified as a full vegetable serving in the federal school lunch program.
"Pizza certainly has its place in school meals, but equating it with broccoli, carrots and celery seriously undermines this nation's efforts to support children's health and their ability to learn because of better school nutrition," Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., the bill's chief sponsor, said in a letter to colleagues seeking their support for the measure. "Its nutritional content should be accurately reflected in school meal standards."
Congress' action last fall drew widespread attention -- and ridicule.
"Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, citing Congress' struggle to come up with a deficit-reduction plan, joked: "So the one thing that you've all been able to sit down and agree upon is that pizza is a vegetable."
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., mused that as candidates hit the campaign trail, maybe voters should "pin them down on whether or not they believe pizza is a vegetable."
But Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute, said, "Congress did not declare pizza a vegetable ... and no one has ever, or will ever, ask that pizza be considered a vegetable."
Lawmakers blocked the U.S. Department of Agriculture from requiring that food contain half a cup of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable serving, he said.
Polis' bill would allow the department to count 1/8 of a cup of tomato paste as 1/8 of a cup of vegetables instead of as half a cup of vegetables.
The food institute opposes Polis' bill, saying it would "all but remove foods made with tomato paste from school cafeterias, in spite of the significant nutritional value offered by tomato paste."
"Unfairly downgrading the nutritional classification of tomato paste would have severely hindered the ability of school nutritionists to serve a wide range of healthy, affordable meals that schoolchildren enjoy eating," Henry said in an interview.
Chris Fitzgerald, an aide to Polis, responded: "They got their loophole because they want to sell the school meal program lots of frozen pizza, which is in no way banned from the school meal program by the rule. It just shouldn't count as a vegetable serving."
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, welcomed Polis' bill.
"It sends a good message about the importance of healthy school foods, and that these decisions should be based on what's best for kids, not what's best for business," she said in an interview.
The issue is expected to come up again soon when the House takes up the annual spending bill for the Department of Agriculture.
But Wootan doesn't expect Polis' bill to go far in the current Congress.
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