On my commute home last night, a news report on the radio about school lunches and new guidelines began with the headline-grabbing sound bite: “Is pizza a vegetable?”

As many of you remember the hot-button issue of French fries as a vegetable, this new one’s picking up media coverage all over. As far as that goes, French fries consist almost exclusively of potatoes – last I checked, potatoes were a vegetable. While it would be hard to argue that French fries are the healthiest vegetable under the sneeze guard (relative to other choices), it’s even harder to argue that French fries aren’t a vegetable option. All things in moderation, of course…

However, as I write this, a congressional committee is in discussions to make changes to an Obama administration proposal that aims to make school lunches healthier – a laudable goal, to be sure. It could be that as you’re reading, this issue has been voted on and settled. The committee’s spending bill would significantly change school lunch standards set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which originally sought to reduce the use of potatoes, limit sodium and boost whole grains.

The bill also would allow tomato paste on pizzas to be counted as a vegetable.

Really?

My first reaction, of course, is that tomatoes are a fruit. So, while the use of tomato as a “vegetable” slides by in the culinary world, it’s an inaccurate headline and just one of those pet peeves that raises a red flag to me. It’s a little pedantic, sure, but what’s an editor without some nitpicking.

My second reaction to the issue was incredulity with the rationale. The processed frozen foods lobby representative justified the stance entirely on the health benefits of the tomato paste in the pizza – a massive 2 ounces estimated per slice, mind you. The assertion is that these magical 2 ounces of tomato sauce and/or paste have mythical properties and amazing health benefits, all of which far outweigh any perceived dietary downsides. His zeal and enthusiasm were almost contagious.

Look, I’m a big fan of pizza, as my waistline can attest. Pizza and I go way back. For as long as I can remember, pizza and I have shared many wonderful, if messy, memories. Heck, who doesn’t love a pizza party? In my misspent youth, I rationalized, like so many others, that pizza was the perfect food: protein, vegetables and grains, all packaged into a perfect hand-held, triangular delivery system (or square, in the case of most school pizza). Pizza is, was and will always be a joy to mankind, whether it’s served hot out of a 400-year-old brick oven while sitting in an outdoor café on the Napoli coast or cold from a delivery box left on the coffee table while watching SportsCenter in your pajamas.

I know I’m not alone on that last one.

The issue isn’t whether pizza is good or bad. To me, it’s not even whether pizza should be available for school lunches (I think it should be available, especially if it’s either freshly made or has high-quality ingredients). Again, all things in moderation…

Also, don’t get me wrong: tomatoes are pretty fantastic, and all their health benefits aren’t in dispute. No one is saying tomatoes aren’t great. All you tomato growers out there get thumbs up from me and millions of other happy eaters.

The issues here are language, intent and disingenuousness.

The frozen food industry has a massive stake in the big dollars of school food contracts. If schools move to more freshly prepared, nonfrozen foods, that’s a big deal. So, the industry defends its products, which is perfectly fine. (On the flip side, if school districts go to a higher percentage of fresh fruits and vegetables, that’s a boon for growers, so this does impact you.) However, stretching the definition of what is or isn’t a vegetable doesn’t make school lunches better, doesn’t help kids learn to eat healthier and certainly doesn’t help our industry. Despite my lifelong fondness for pizza, a little tomato sauce doesn’t make it a vegetable.

It’s like baking a raspberry into a chocolate cake and calling it a fruit smoothie.

Seriously.

Bob M. Montgomery
Editor
bmontgomery@MooseRiverMedia.com