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WASHINGTON - Pizza as a vegetable? Most members of Minnesota's congressional delegation don't have a problem with that.
Minnesota's U.S. senators and six of its eight representatives intervened or voted in some way to block a rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would have stopped a slice of pizza from being counted as a vegetable serving in school cafeterias.
Child nutrition advocates had sought the rule change at a time when childhood obesity has become a public health crisis.
Regulations protecting pizza as a vegetable were included in an agriculture bill that became part of a stop-gap budget Congress passed last week. Tomato paste in pizza sauce is the reason it qualifies under federal school nutrition guidelines.
If the USDA had prevailed, school cafeterias would have had a difficult time serving pizza without spending more on other vegetables to serve with it -- a potential blow to Minnesota's Schwan Food Co., the country's largest supplier of school lunch pizzas.
In June, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to express concern about changing the vegetable rating for tomato paste. "Tomato paste contributes dietary fiber, potassium -- a nutrient of concern for children -- as well as Vitamins A and C," Klobuchar wrote. "I believe we must focus on increasing fruits and vegetables rather than decreasing specific foods that provide an important source of essential nutrients."
Republican Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the House Education Committee, wanted all proposed changes in school nutrition scrapped because he argued that they cost too much. "I strongly encourage you to withdraw the current [proposals]," Kline, who has received $4,000 in campaign contributions from Schwan since 2008, wrote to Vilsack.
Some members of the Minnesota delegation who questioned the USDA said they wanted pizza and other nutritional rules set by regulators, not by Congress.
Sen. Al Franken, who received no campaign funding from Schwan, wrote a letter challenging the science of the new USDA pizza policy. The Democrat also signed another letter with other senators questioning limits on servings of starchy vegetables such as potatoes or corn.
Still, he said that he wanted to get information, not see pizza labeled a vegetable by an act of Congress. "The way this was done you can have French fries and pizza every day [in school cafeterias]," Franken said. “And that is egregious. That’s terrible.”
Perhaps, but Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said challenges posed by Franken and others in the delegation set the stage for keeping pizza a vegetable and undermined healthier diets for school kids.
"It's not that a whole wheat slice of pizza can't be a healthy food," Wootan said. "But it shouldn't count as a vegetable."
In a Nov. 1 letter, Franken asked Vilsack for scientific justification for the change in tomato paste ratings because it could "affect how food manufacturers produce certain products, such as pizza, and the way these products taste."
Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson, whose district is home to Schwan and who has received $6,000 in campaign contributions from the food company since 2008, offered strong support for the current interpretation of tomato paste. "I just disagree with telling people how to eat," he said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, did not want to "be picking winners and losers amongst the different vegetables," a spokeswoman said.
Like most of the Minnesota delegation, Republican Rep. Chip Cravaack and Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum voted for an agriculture appropriations conference bill that left pizza as a vegetable. Republic Rep. Michele Bachmann voted for an earlier House ag bill that took away all nutritional guideline changes.
Only Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen voted against the conference bill.
It was Klobuchar's intervention that frustrated many nutrition advocates, because her letter mirrored and sometimes duplicated Schwan's and the frozen pizza industries' objections to the new rules.
"It was disappointing to see the letter coming from a member we consider one of the champions of child nutrition," said Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "It addresses all the key points from Schwan's."
Klobuchar, who has received $3,500 in donations from Schwan to her 2012 reelection campaign, declined an interview. In a statement, a spokesman said that the senator did not ask the USDA to undo the new rules and that she bases policy decisions on what she thinks is best for Minnesota.
"She doesn't think a French fry should be considered a vegetable, and while she has voiced concerns over the unintended consequences of the Department of Agriculture's proposed rule on tomato paste, she believes this issue should be addressed through the normal rule-making process at the Department of Agriculture, not through legislation," spokesman Linden Zakula said.
In an interview, Franken said, he, too, expected the guidelines to be developed by regulations, not legislation, and that he wrote to Vilsack for clarification, not to express opposition. "When I oppose something, it’s pretty clear that I’m opposed to something,” Franken said, adding that he supported the new rules and was trying to push the USDA to make a stronger case.
The School Nutrition Association, which received $3,250 in donations from Schwan's political action committee in 2010 and 2011, lobbied to keep the old tomato paste standard, even as many of its members do not consider pizza as a vegetable on their cafeteria menus.
"In St. Paul, we don't count anything on a pizza as a vegetable," said Jean Ronnei, the city schools' nutrition director.
Schwan explained its position to Minnesota legislators while its trade association spent more than $400,000 lobbying. But the company insisted it didn't set out to protect pizza as a vegetable serving.
"Schwan's has not, and does not, advocate that pizza replace the vegetable component of a balanced school meal," the company said in statement. "We are advocating that tomato paste -- one tablespoon of which provides the equivalent nutrients of approximately three tomatoes -- continue to be credited for the nutrients it contains."
It will. An eighth of a cup of tomato paste will continue to count as a full serving of vegetables when it comes to a school lunch. That is now codified in legislation passed by Congress. It remains law until the next agriculture appropriations bill passes in 2012. Until then, it would take an act of Congress to undo it.
"We are taking a step backward apparently in response to pressure from groups who see it in their interest to serve junk food in our schools," said retired Air Force Gen. Richard Hawley. Hawley is a member of a group of more than 260 retired generals and admirals called Mission: Readiness. The group was formed partly to address the fact that obesity now disqualifies 25 percent of military recruits.
The pizza-as-vegetable debate reminded many observers of the Reagan administration's efforts to make ketchup a vegetable in school lunches. That effort failed.
For its doomed proposals on tomato paste and potatoes, the USDA followed scientific guidelines solicited from the Institute of Medicine. The guidelines recommended more leafy green vegetables and orange vegetables, such as carrots.
Peterson, who is "opposed to the food police," remains unswayed. School nutritionists have told him pizza and French fries are among the few foods kids will actually eat. New offerings, he said, would have ended up in cafeteria trash cans, not in children's stomachs.
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752; Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003