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Out to lunch: Congress concludes pizza is a vegetable

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:


As if anyone needed it, Congress last week offered further evidence that it’s out to lunch. Taking a page from President Ronald Reagan’s playbook on the nutritional value of ketchup, representatives concluded pizza is a vegetable and rejected President Barack Obama’s effort to make school meals more healthful.

Record numbers of American children — 12.5 million at last count — are obese, and the soaring health care costs for those kids dwarf any extra cost of tossing a few fresh veggies into school lunches. But Congress is more concerned about its friends in the processed food industry making frozen pizza, french fries and other high-calorie, high-sodium offerings. The lobbyists spoke, and Congress caved.

Placing these interests above children’s health is bad enough. But there are more direct implications for the national interest. A panel of retired military officers reported last week that 27 percent of all 17- to 24-year-olds in America are so overweight that they are unfit to serve in the military. The report’s title, “Too fat to fight,” strongly urges that the nation adopt stricter nutritional standards for school meals and reinstate essential physical education programs.

Food industries argued that the school lunch standards proposed by the U.S. Agriculture Department would cost too much and that — no kidding — kids would prefer unhealthful offerings over meals with more fruits and vegetables. Conservatives in Congress then grandstanded that government shouldn’t be in the business of telling kids what to eat.

But telling kids what’s good for them is exactly what school lunches do. Parents who struggle to get kids to eat healthful meals at home and to snack on veggies instead of chips are undercut when schools push pizza and french fries. Some schoolchildren receive 40 percent of their daily calories from school meals. That alone could go a long way toward explaining the obesity crisis.

Congress subsidizes farmers who grow unhealthful crops and then, like drug pushers, foists the products onto children, all the while bragging about saving taxpayers money.

About those savings: The Agriculture Department estimated that its proposal would add 14 cents to the cost of a school lunch, about $1 billion a year. But childhood obesity is already costing Americans more than $3 billion a year in medical and other costs. And caring for obese people costs, on average, $1,450 more a year than for others with similar conditions.

The notion that pizza is a vegetable has nothing to do with toppings. That might actually make sense. Instead it’s about the tomato paste. The USDA wanted to stop the practice of counting pizza as a vegetable if a slice contains one-quarter cup of tomato paste. Among other recommendations were cutting sodium consumption in half, encouraging the use of whole grains and limiting the use of potatoes. This is good diet advice for Americans of all ages. But the American Frozen Food Institute wailed that the standards go too far.

Members of Congress should be required to eat the daily lunch diet they’re pushing on children. Perhaps when their health deteriorates sufficiently, they’ll retire and make way for more enlightened representatives.

©2011 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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