In response to congressional action last fall that allows a small amount of tomato paste to count as a serving of vegetables in school meals—and in turn making a slice of pizza the equivalent of a half-cup of broccoli on lunch trays—U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, introduced a bill Monday that would put an end to the practice.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture had wanted to end a provision in school meal rules that allowed 1/8 cup of tomato paste on a slice of pizza to count as 1/8 cup, rather than 1/2 cup of vegetables. The switch would have matched the rules for tomato paste with those for all other fruit and vegetable pastes and purees.
USDA was in the midst of rewriting school lunch and breakfast rules and had already lost a battle on restricting the amount of potatoes students are served. But Congress tweaked the agriculture appropriations bill so that the agency can't spend any money on counting tomato paste the way it proposed to. Food companies said if they had to put a half cup of tomato paste on a single slice to allow it to continue counting as a vegetable, that meant the pizza could become inedible. (Simply adding other vegetables per slice could also have resolved the issue, however.)
"Agribusinesses should never dictate the quality of school meals," said Polis. "Big food companies have their priorities, which include selling cheap, unhealthy foods at high profits. But parents and schools have their priorities; making sure our kids eat right because research shows a clear connection between nutrition and student performance in school."
Polis' SLICE Act—School Lunch Improvements for Children's Education—would restore USDA's authority to 1/8 of a cup of tomato paste as 1/8 of a cup, instead of half of a cup. It would also give the USDA the power to implement reductions in sodium in school lunches and boost the amount of whole grains required in school meals, other tweaks Congress made last year to the agency's plans.
The SLICE Act is silent on potatoes. Congress also did away with USDA's ability to limit servings of potatoes in school lunches.