The pizza-as-veggie headlines erupted into ridiculousness after Congress voted on November 17th to make some changes in the proposed rule for new USDA school meal standards. For the record, “Congress did not declare pizza as a vegetable” (Washington Post). Tomato paste did become one more topic for partisan political bickering in DC, as outlined by the St. Petersburg Times Truth-o-Meter on November 22nd.
As a registered dietitian and also a school nutrition professional with more than 10 years in the business, I would like to put pizza in a different light than what you think of as your Friday night quick take-out meal indulgence. Here are 5 reasons pizza is a good food for kids in the school lunch program.
1. Pizza is absolutely loaded with vitamins and nutrients kids need. And in the school setting pizza can easily be prepared with ingredients that satisfy even the most progressive guidelines. Let’s start from the bottom or the crust. School pizza is made with whole–grain crust. In my schools we actually purchase a crust that is 51% whole wheat, and I am not alone in this practice. This makes the crust rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.
2. The sauce, be it regular tomato sauce or low-sodium version, is still rich in flavor, a good source of antioxidants, and rich in lycopene and other nutrients. The sauce is made from vegetables, which is exactly what Congress was speaking to when discussing pizza and vegetables. Here is a chart that compares tomato paste to other vegetables. These numbers are from the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. Two tablespoons of tomato paste (the amount Congress approved) beats out carrots and broccoli on potassium and compares favorably on fiber. Since these are two of the “nutrients of concern” for kids and adults, you can see there is merit to the nutrition added to the pizza through the tomato sauce/paste on it.
3. The toppings: Cheese is the most common topping, and it is 100 percent real cheese, reduced in fat, but still a great source of calcium, protein, vitamin A, D, B12, riboflavin, phosphorous, potassium and magnesium. These nutrients are essential for building strong bones and teeth. If you top the cheese with healthy vegetable toppings you are increasing the nutrition punch in each slice while keeping the fat and calories low. A school lunch comes with one slice, not all you can eat.
4. Food served to kids in schools, like mine and others, does not become nutrition until the kids eat it. Pizza is a great vehicle food that kids love that we can create in a manner that is great tasting, kid approved, and packed with good nutrition.
5. Many schools make their own pizza as I do, but there are great options for schools to purchase, too. Top pizza suppliers are developing healthier-than-ever versions of their popular pizzas.
A side note: As for including the sauce as a serving of vegetables—schools have so many other fruit and vegetable offerings they don’t even need to consider the sauce as part of the required vegetables for the day.
- Deborah Beauvais, RD, CDN, SNS
File under: In the News