Late Monday, Congress released the final version of a bill responding to new school lunch standards proposed by the USDA. The Obama administration wanted to make school lunches more healthful, cutting back on the endless procession of potatoes, corn, refined flour, and sodium. One such provision was that a mere two tablespoons of tomato paste — the quantity required to blanket a slice of pizza — not be considered a “vegetable.” (Anybody remember the Reagan administration's failed attempt to reclassify ketchup from a condiment to a vegetable?)
No, said Congress. Two tablespoons of tomato paste is a vegetable, and a slice of pizza serves as its conveniently filling transportation device. The U.S.D.A. had slyly suggested that a brimming half-cup of tomato paste might work, an amount even a lunch line pizzaloo would find excessive. The idea was to cut back on the pizza, but Congress didn't blink.
The arguments in favor of pizza being a de facto vegetable are familiar. Actual fresh vegetables are costly. Regulations are burdensome to school districts trying to meet the needs of students receiving free or reduced lunch. More research is needed to determine how much sodium should be reduced — and what really constitutes a “whole grain.” Also implied in this is the notion that students from low-income communities who benefit from free or reduced school lunches aren't worth the hassle. In the end, it's easier to redefine what vegetables are than serve them.
Pizza is a vegetable in disguise. Will hamburgers soon hang from trees like strange, ketchup-oozing fruit? Might a whole bar of chocolate count as a whole grain because it is whole? Will meatballs fall from the sky? Only in fantasy (or children's books). We can see it now: a chapter in Alice Waters's next Chez Panisse Vegetables devoted to the newest addition to the vegetable family. There'll be a whimsical drawing of a gathering of pizza pies poking out of delivery boxes, surrounded by sheaths of wheat and jars of tomato paste. Waters will authoritatively and lovingly extol the virtues of different varieties of pizza. Then, she will share cultivation tips (“grows easily everywhere; use the phone or the Internet to order”).