Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association
Tom Stenzel, United Fresh Produce Association

It has been a long road working to improve the quality of school lunches. 

For several years, United Fresh has worked with committees at the National Academy of Sciences, members of Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

When Congress finally passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, we finally hit the milestone where USDA began writing new regulations for school meals.

Earlier this year USDA put out a draft proposed rule, and has received more than 100,000 comments in response. 

By and large, it was a great rule for fruits and vegetables, seeking to bring schools’ meals into alignment with the dietary guidelines. 

But of course we saw some things like the potato guidelines that needed to be fixed. 

That’s why government agencies issue proposed rules in the first place, rather than final regulations. 

The give-and-take in rulemaking is critical, and something, I might add, we can certainly expect for the new Food and Drug Administration-proposed food safety rules when they come out.

But who would have foreseen the heavy-handed political deal seeking to protect tomato paste on a pizza? The outrage across the country at this move was predictable, just as the “ketchup is a vegetable” scandal proved years ago. 

Media reported that here was yet another sign of Washington insiders pulling strings to thwart the goals of public health, putting corporate wealth ahead of children’s health. 

The story reverberated across the national media and late-night talk shows, and even made it to a skit on “Saturday Night Live.”

You know you’ve touched the public consciousness when you’re ridiculed on SNL!

I have to admit, I was outraged too until I started to talk with friends who work in school foodservice, nutrition and public health. 

No vegetable status for pizza at lunch timeThey told me to relax — that this issue had probably done more to motivate school boards, school foodservice leaders and, of course, moms and dads to reject business as usual and redouble their efforts to drive fresh, healthy school meals. 

A little parent outrage goes a long way.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good pizza — especially with lots of fresh mushrooms, onions, peppers and even some sausage thrown in. 

But my goodness — you don’t have to be a public health advocate to know these people overplayed their hand. 

Pizza will continue to have a place in schools, with a vegetable not instead of one. 

The pizza companies that I see growing in schools are those with more fresh ingredients, bringing along a side salad with every slice (yes, there are companies doing that right now).

It’s time for school leaders nationally to look critically at which of their food suppliers are offering great-tasting, fresh foods to delight the kids, and which see schools as a market for products that wouldn’t sell in a mainstream restaurant. 

It’s not just about nutrient profile — it’s about the quality that kids want and deserve.

Unfortunately, the pizza fiasco got confused in the press with the potato issue, which was a real concern that the USDA needed to fix. 

United Fresh and many others argued in our comments that the USDA needed to allow more flexibility in the proposed rule for schools to incorporate healthy potatoes.

From the start, I was confident we were going to win this issue in the course of rulemaking. 

Others felt that political pressure was important in helping USDA recognize the importance of the issue.

But, in either case, advocates were at least up front addressing the issue on the Hill unlike the secret pizza deal that was inserted into “must-pass” legislation.

I can assure you that you’ll never see such a measure making it through committee hearings and any kind of a vote, because constituents would raise heck.

But at the end of the day, the pizza deal is likely to have little effect anyway. 

The good news is the new USDA school lunch rule will soon be published. 

It will still result in doubling the servings of real fruits and vegetables in schools. Schools will still receive extra funding for meals that meet these healthier standards.

And, despite the silly game of trying to count pizza as a vegetable, the trends are clear. Kids across the country will be getting an ever-increasing array of wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables in schools.

This time, I believe the desperate attempts from those who would block that progress may have backfired more than they know.

Tom Stenzel is president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

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