Tomatoes and the Adventures of Congressional Vegetable Rulings


What’s in a Name?

What is a vegetable, really? While the true meaning of the word has been argued for some time now, and culinary professionals define their foods a little differently than botanists or even customs officials, we all know the tomato has long been a candidate up for semantic debate.

 In 1893, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a customs case that the tomato is considered a vegetable, despite the knowledgeable conclusion of numerous botanists that a tomato (as well as corn, cucumber and bell pepper) is actually a fruit. This all stems (get it?!)  from the scientific taxonomy of biological classification, but my point is that it has definitively been decided by the USDA how many servings of vegetables Americans should be getting a day, and what these vegetables are is also, apparently, up the United States Government. 

But First, a Little History

The National School Lunch Program was signed by President Truman and established in 1946. The program came into effect because it became evident that malnourished children grew up to be very poor soldiers; this federally imposed meal program was imposed as a “matter of national security”.

school lunch

In 1966 the program went even further by passing the Child Nutrition Act to provide breakfast, milk, and special equipment for the school kitchens. The success experienced as a result of the National School Lunch Program inspired officials as they began to recognize the role of proper nutrition for brain development in our nations’s children.

However, this crusade seemed to lose momentum in the early 1980’s when the Federal School Lunch Program withstood a staggering  budget cut of 25%. This led to a number of decreases in quality and quantity, including substitutions and portion reductions. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service under the Reagan Administration actually encouraged states to explore such audacious options such as pickle relish as vegetable substitutions. Not surprisingly, this campaign, and Reagan himself were publicly smeared with the critique that condiments are not vegetables.


So… Can Pizza Actually Be a Vegetable?

This brings me to more current regulations. Many people probably remember the public outrage in 2011 when the agricultural spending bill passed that failed to honor the attempts to enhance the nutritional content of school lunches.  The proposed changes included several things like limiting sodium and potato use on the lunch lines, and not counting 1/8th of a cup of tomato paste as a 1/2 a cup of vegetables. In other words, in order to get their full cup of veggies, kids will have to consume however much cheese and bread comes along with that tomato paste in the sauce. This lead to slew of headlines claiming that “Congress Declared Pizza a Vegetable”. 

Perhaps unfortunately for the general public, policies that are made in the name of nutrition are not always done so solely with the objective consideration and input of trained professionals. Things like cost and subsidies come into account when making these decisions, too. Dairy, meat and salt industries have a say in how much of these things we “should” actually eat. For instance, knowledge about the dangers of excessive sodium consumption have been abound for 30 or more years, but it’s been difficult to get the reduction many health professionals have been asking for, as salt is an efficient and cost-effective way to make food taste good, so the salt industry actually has a powerful sway. 


Back to the Tomato and Our School Lunches

Fresh fruits and veggies are pretty easily recognized by most anyone over the age of 4. However, some regulations and public policies make it a little more ambiguous as to how to count your servings. In light of these facts, the position of public policy for someone passionately interested in good food seems daunting and disheartening.

While there are community nutrition positions in government, it seems that fierce politicians rarely graduate from the nation’s dietetics and nutrition programs to go on a fight for nutritional legislature. Many big industries and companies seek out professionals who will lobby for their product, without giving an objective look at the nutritional value of their goods. However, without the nutritional advocacy of educated, unbiased professionals, our children would be very much at the mercy of budget cuts and the food industries, who quite frankly, don’t always have the nutritional content of our school lunches in mind. Without them, the future’s children may be scraping their “vegetables” from the inside of a salty can…

My gratitude goes out to those who fight for our nutritional standards, with our most healthy best interests at heart.

2 thoughts on “Tomatoes and the Adventures of Congressional Vegetable Rulings

  1. This was a very interesting read. I haven’t given much thought to the definitions or fruits/veggies and the past history of school lunch programs. Although I always considered a tomato to be a fruit, its good to know that according to the US government it is a veggie. I found it interesting that our government has taken shortcuts within their own regulations to nourish children within schools. I can only hope that now and into the future through a more progressive farm to school and the need for sustainable food sources that we can feed not only children but all people with the proper foods to provide the most nutritious meals. This comes down to having the proper individuals influencing those in Washington deciding what is important when it comes to the food we eat. I would agree with you, I have respect for those individuals who involve themselves in the political fight to provide the best food to our nation, as I would not be able to do it.

  2. Having been out of elementary school for a significant amount of time now, your blog really helped me reflect on many of the issues that surround the National School Lunch Program. I wish it were the case that all policy makers, food distributers, and government agencies had the best interests and health of school children in the front of their minds, but it is obvious that many times these needs get pushed to the side in favor of budget and convenience. Obviously with the national debt being what it is, our country has to try and save money somewhere, but when you really step back and think about it the National School Lunch Program is really not the place to do it. When the only source of vegetables a student is receiving a day is in the form of the tomato sauce on their pizza or ketchup with their French fries, there is certainly going to have to be more money spent down the road to deal with the future obesity and chronic disease of these students. Saving a few dollars by serving students processed and convenience foods really becomes irrelevant when you consider what this means for potential healthcare costs in
    the future.

    While there is no easy answer to the problem of how to save money and deliver nutritious food to school children I believe it starts with involving the qualified and necessary professionals in the political process. If we can begin to get government officials to think of ways to get higher quality and more nutritious foods into schools at an acceptable cost, rather than manipulating and falsely representing the nutrient content of the poor quality foods that are currently being served, we may actually get somewhere!

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