Sunday, November 20, 2011

Anatomy of a Vote: Why Congress Voted to Count Frozen Pizza as a Vegetable in School Lunches // Plus, Is Horsemeat the New Venison?

On yesterday's cable news, Maryland Juice caught mention of a vote by Congress to classify frozen pizza as a vegetable in public school lunches. By nightfall, I began to research whether it was a true story or just more sensationalist cable news. My initial digging turned up two articles verifying the basic gist of the alarming news, so I decided to use the story to highlight how good intentions and our modern legislative process can lead to ridiculous outcomes. The New York Times had this coverage:
In a victory for the makers of frozen pizzas, tomato paste and French fries, Congress on Monday blocked rules proposed by the Agriculture Department that would have overhauled the nation’s school lunch program.

The proposed changes — the first in 15 years to the $11 billion school lunch program — were meant to reduce childhood obesity by adding more fruits and green vegetables to lunch menus, Agriculture Department officials said.

The rules, proposed last January, would have cut the amount of potatoes served and would have changed the way schools received credit for serving vegetables by continuing to count tomato paste on a slice of pizza only if more than a quarter-cup of it was used. The rules would have also halved the amount of sodium in school meals over the next 10 years....
Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals and require food that many children would throw away....

Nutrition experts called the action by Congress a setback for improving the nutritional standards in school lunches and addressing childhood obesity.

Three days later, Kristin Wartman, a Huffington Post food writer piled on with this criticism:

If there were any lingering doubts as to whom our elected representatives really work for, they were put to rest Tuesday when Congress announced that frozen pizza was a vegetable....

Keep in mind that industrial food as it exists today has only been around for roughly 60 years. Much of what we take as the truth about what kinds of food kids love and hate is largely dictated by the food industry itself. The idea that kids won't eat vegetables is a construct invented by the food industry and reinforced by well-meaning parents, school lunch programs and government officials.

Maryland Juice completely agrees with the need to keep children healthy and provide them with good food options, so we decided to look up the roll call votes for what we are calling the "Vege-Pizza" Bill of 2011. Interestingly, every Maryland Democrat in the U.S. House and Senate voted in favor of "vege-pizza." In fact, nearly every Democrat nationally voted in favor of the legislation. Vege-Pizza passed the House 298-121 with 165 Democratic "yes" votes and only 20 Dems voting "no." In the Senate, the vote was 70-30, with not a single Democrat voting "no."

So have the Democrats sold our children out to the frozen pizza industry or is there more to the story than meets the eye? As reported by Brownfield - Ag News for America, the Vege-Pizza Bill of 2011 was actually just a small piece of special interest shenanigans attached to the Agriculture Department's funding bill, which apparently also keeps the government running for a few more weeks:
The $182 billion package would fund the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development for FY 2012 plus contains a continuing resolution to keep the rest of the government going through December 16th. The current funding runs out on Friday.
That means that members of Congress supporting funding for a range of government programs, including disaster aid, had to accept this budget, warts and all. In this case, the warts included Vege-Pizza. These days any opportunity to hold the government budget hostage generates the interest of rightwing politicians and Tea Partiers alike. But who exactly brought the idea of Vege-Pizza to the table during the creation of this budget? The previously mentioned New York Times article makes it appear as though the real culprits in this process are the U.S. House and Senate members who were appointed to the legislative conference committee that brokered the final budget deal:
...late Monday, lawmakers drafting a House and Senate compromise for the agriculture spending bill blocked the department from using money to carry out any of the proposed rules....
Indeed, the Brownfield Ag News also noted the following mundane and shocking details of the compromise:
The bill includes $136.6 billion in funding for agriculture, $117 billion in mandatory funding and $19.8 billion for discretionary funding, a drop from $19.9 billion in 2011.
The plan includes $2.3 billion in disaster aid, a compromise between the House and Senate versions.
The plan fully funds the Market Access and Foreign Market Development Programs at $200 million and $34.5 million, respectively and allocates $844 million for Natural Resource Conservation Service programs.
The Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program is funded at $6.6 billion.
The plan eliminates some changes USDA wants to make to the school lunch menu. The final bill blocks the Ag Department from limiting the servings of potatoes and starchy vegetables, reinstates counting two tablespoons of tomato paste on pizza as a vegetable, delays limits on sodium and delays a required increase in whole grains.
DTN reports the bill also places restrictions on USDA’s implementation of the proposed GIPSA rule. Lawmakers included language restricting USDA from publishing a rule that would cost 100 million dollars to the economy or goes beyond what Congress believes is mandated.
Language that banned USDA inspection of horse meat has been removed opening the door for a return to horse slaughter and processing in the United States.

I'm not even going to ask what company is trying to bring horsemeat to market, but I hope somebody else does. In any case, all the information above still does not explain the origin of the attacks on our children's nutrition. But it seems unbelievable that members of Congress could be so crass that they would mindlessly do the bidding of frozen pizza lobbyists. We decided to dig deeper into the legislative history for clues on the origin of Vege-Pizza in the Agriculture budget debate. Govtrack.us reported 243 amendments were proposed for this spending bill:


When we looked into the specific amendments proposed, one in particular stood out: 
S.AMDT.804 Amends: H.R.2112 , S.AMDT.738  
Sponsor: Sen Collins, Susan M. [ME] (submitted 10/18/2011)

AMENDMENT PURPOSE: To prohibit the use of funds to implement a rule that sets maximum limits on the serving of vegetables in school meal programs or is inconsistent with the recommendations of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans for vegetables.
TEXT OF AMENDMENT AS SUBMITTED: CR S6679
STATUS:
    10/18/2011: Amendment SA 804 agreed to in Senate by Voice Vote.
COSPONSORS(11):

Bingo - Senator Susan Collins of Maine introduced an amendment to cut off funding for the USDA's new nutrition guidelines. This seemed very odd to Maryland Juice, because even though Sen. Collins is a Republican, she is often one of the few remaining GOP Senators with an ounce of reasonableness. It seemed strange that she would hop onto the pro-childhood obsesity bandwagon. But upon closer examination, it appears that there is a simple reason she opened the door to the Vege-Pizza lobby. As they say, all politics is local, and frozen potatoes are now a $44 million/year export in Maine, with a whopping 73.9% increase in sales between 2009 and 2010. Most of the 11 Senators cosponsoring the amendment represent states with large potato exports or industrial food production sites (ie: McCain frozen french fries). No wonder that Senator Collins' government website boasted coverage from the following Wall Street Journal article:
"We've got to have potatoes—our children are used to potatoes," says Louise Bray, food-service director for Caribou, Maine, public schools....

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is proposing to eliminate the "white potato"—defined as any variety but the sweet potato—from federally subsidized school breakfasts and to limit them sharply at lunch.

Messing with a stalwart like the spud doesn't go well with the potato industry, school cafeteria directors and legislators from potato-growing regions. They're fighting to see that in schools, no potato is left behind.

As part of the effort, spud sellers are promoting potatoes as a "true gateway vegetable" that could lead kids to broccoli.

At a March Senate hearing on the USDA budget, Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) hoisted a standard-fare brown-skinned spud in one hand and, in the other, a head of iceberg lettuce, which hasn't come under explicit federal scrutiny. One medium white potato contains nearly twice the vitamin C "as this entire head," she said, asking: "So my question, Mr. Secretary, is what does the department have against potatoes?"

The proposed change is part of a push to make school meals healthier, with more nutrient-rich vegetables and fewer French fries. Under the USDA proposal, school cafeterias would have to limit starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, peas and lima beans to a total of one cup per week for lunch....

...the National Potato Council in Washington, D.C., is urging the "entire potato industry" to mobilize....

Schools represent a thin slice of sales for many potato processors. But "even though it's a small percent, the sheer number of meals means it's still important," says a spokeswoman for ConAgra Foods Inc., which supplies potato products to schools....

The USDA isn't so much "discriminating against potatoes," but wants to move away from the "fried nature" that some schools are preparing, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified to the Senate in March.

So the potato industry and Senator Susan Collins of Maine are apparently the ones responsible for starting the Vege-Pizza movement. Annoyingly, four out of the eleven Senators who cosponsored Sen. Collin's frozen french fry amendment still voted against the final budget compromise to keep the government running: Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), James Risch (R-ID), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Ron Johnson (R-WI).  Maryland's two GOP members of Congress also voted against the budget compromise. Sen. Collins and the potato industry asked legislators not to discriminate against fresh, healthy potatoes, but it turns out those arguments were a stalking horse for lobbying efforts around frozen pizza, frozen french fries and maybe even horse meat. Blech.

Amazingly, all of this frozen french fry shenanigans happened back in October. The school lunch guidelines only re-emerged because of the news surrounding final passage last week. But it appears the damage happened long ago. In fact, the New York Times covered Senator Collins' french fry amendment in October:
The Senate stood up Tuesday for the humble white potato and rebuffed an effort by President Obama to limit its consumption by millions of schoolchildren around the country.

The administration has proposed limiting the amount of potatoes and other starchy vegetables that can be served in school lunches to one cup per student per week, and banning them from school breakfasts....

Senators Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, set aside partisan differences and defended the potato, which is grown in great quantities in their states. They said the proposal had no basis in nutrition science.

So that, in short, is a window into the sausage-grinder of the legislative process. One Senator's defense of a local industry disrupted the formation of national nutritional standards for our children and opened the door for unscrupulous lobbyists to succeed in classifying tomato sauce on frozen pizza as a vegetable. If you pause and put aside the reasonable explanations for each individual actor, it seems hard to call the final outcome a good one. Is it possible to make rational policy anymore? Let me remind you that in the Wall Street Journal article above, the potato industry lobbyists called spuds a "gateway vegetable" that could lead to children eating broccoli. Really?

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