December 29, 2011

Food Fight


Article from the student newspaper, La Papillote. Written by Natalie Singer, AOS Culinary Student.

As most students can verify, after a couple of weeks on campus, the CIA exists within a strange bubble. It’s not noticeable at first, but after a while, you start to realize any news that penetrates the troposphere between Rt. 9 and the Hudson usually only makes it to our ears because it is, predictably, about food. One of the biggest food stories lately has been about “Congress Declaring Pizza a Vegetable,” and it’s definitely caused quite a bit of consternation across the US. Unfortunately, a decent majority of citizens are so disillusioned with the state of the nation, that while they griped about it with their spouses, doctors, colleagues, and the produce boy at the local market, it didn’t really spark their curiosity. “Of course they would!” they cried to Timothy, restocking the tomates at Stop ‘n Spend. Buy it is, like all things decided in Congress, a beast with many heads, and many arguments to chase.

To clarify, Congress did not declare pizza a vegetable. It declared tomato paste a vegetable, in term of its use in public school lunches. As culinary students, the first reaction that most had was, “but tomatoes are fruits!” The USDA’s answer to that is, “but how do we use tomato?” And while we all like to consider ourselves open-minded gastronomes, we don’t typically pick up tomatoes from the store with the intention of using them in our morning smoothie.

Tomato paste, or specifically, 1/8 cup tomato paste was the object of contention. Nutritionally speaking, tomato paste isn’t horrible. That 1/8 cup is the product of 1/2 cup of tomato, and contains more vitamins A and C than half a cup of green beans, and more calcium than half a cup of applesauce, and by law, must contain no less than 24% tomato solids. The base cause for concern is that 1/8 cup measure. Congress interpreted the 1/8 cup tomato paste not as 1/8 cup tomato paste, but as the 1/2 cup tomato that it was before Hunt’s peeled, seeded, boiled, reduced, and dried it (this isn’t, by the way, how they interpreted any other pureed or concentrated food). Consider this: do you think that each slice of pizza would contain 1/8 cup of tomato paste?

But that’s the tip of the iceberg, really. The National School Lunch Program provides lunches for more than 31 million students, and has been serving kids since 1946, when nutrient deficiencies and under-consumption were noted as national problems. Today, the standards for school lunches are based on the Dietary Guidelines from 1995. Unfortunately, nutrition deficiencies are still a problem today in many schools, and over-consumption has become a problem, not only in school lunches, but also in the well-publicized obesity epidemic stretching across the US. According to 2003-2006 Center for Disease Control study, almost 32% of children in the US are overweight or obese, and approximately 17% of children or obese.

The USDA and the NSLP were trying to keep school lunches in line with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines. One of the biggest problems with school lunches today is the sodium content. Here at the CIA, we’re no strangers to salt, but according to a 2007 audit by the USDA, over half of the schools surveyed provided meals that, per week, contained twice as much sodium than advised—more than 6000mg/day! (The 2010 Guidelines are much more conservative, and have cut the recommended allowance in half for children, a grand total of 1500mg/day.) Tomato paste is part of the problem. Salt is added as a preservative to the paste itself, and now, we’re not talking about tomato paste anymore. How salty is a piece of pizza?

Sodium is, however, an essential nutrient. It helps maintain a balance of fluids, transmit neural impulses, and plays a part in the contraction and relaxation of muscles. It’s also an essential ingredient in the kitchen, where it’s used as a flavor enhancer, and to give a more pronounced mouth feel. But we’ve all heard the stories of chefs with hypertension and kidney disease—it’s not just because of all the butter.

So why wasn’t the Lunch Program amended? Unlike many recent bills to pass through Congress, it wasn’t divided along the party line. Unabashedly, both Republican and Democrat senators went to bat for their corporate backers, including the American Frozen Food Institute and Schwan’s Food Service Inc., which provides 75% of American schools with pizza.

For many school districts, however, this whole spectacle served as a wake-up call. Most schools actually want their students to be healthy, and some have started to implement the changes proposed, regardless of whether or not these changes are mandatory. It’s also sparked conversation about how we eat as a country. Many people found themselves immediately repulsed by the idea of considering pizza a vegetable, only to realize that they had been treating it that way at home. It’s clear that although “foodie-ism” has become a trend, many people still aren’t thinking about what they put into their bodies let along their children’s bodies.