Pizza at School Is Disgusting, and the Fight to Keep It on the Menu Is Worse

The uniquely unpalatable pizza served to America's students is hard to find outside of a school cafeteria, but it has long played a preeminent role in political fights over the national nutritional standards for school lunches. After all, serving lunch to our nation's poorest children is a $13bn industry, and we wouldn't want the makers of crap foods to miss out on their piece of that pie.

So after House Republicans voted to withhold funds for the Obama administration's nutritional standards and in favor of serving more frozen pizza, I found and ordered a cheese pie from Schwan's – one of the largest providers of frozen pizza to the nation's schools – just to see if my recollections of it were accurate. The directions told me to bake it directly on the oven rack, but I opted for a pan – both because I wanted to recreate the school lunch experience and because the pizza fell apart when I pulled it out of its plastic wrapping.

Fourteen minutes later, I was testing my memory. Here was the familiar crust, which tasted alternately like cardboard and slightly soggy, stale Saltines. Here was the familiar red layer of goo, which took the place of sauce, and the shreds of cheese, which never quite melted. It was all mixed with a little too much salt and the tiniest hint of oregano. It wasn't good, it wasn't filling, and it definitely wasn't nutritious.

I doubt that students are clamoring for more of this pizza. It isn't the grossest school lunch – that award goes to Salisbury steak – but if students rank Pizza Day as their favorite, it's only because the competition is so deplorable.

Republicans have been fighting school nutritional standards since 2010, when legislation passed to require that school cafeterias serve more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and also limits the junk food schools can sell. In 2011, House Republicans supported rules that allow the small amount of tomato paste contained on a slice of pizza – the salty "red goo" that came with mine – to count as a vegetable.

These continuing fights over pizza are frustrating for anti-hunger advocates who want to expand healthy school meals – serving more breakfasts and summer lunches, and making it easier for kids who qualify to get those meals for free – and don't want their time sucked up defending against rear-guard attacks. But their ranks were recently thinned, as one prominent pro-school-lunch group took up the frozen pizza crusade.

Back in 2010, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a lobbying group, supported the new standards (which are part of First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity). But they've since allied with House Republicans – and in favor of frozen pizza. So what happened?

The SNA represents about 10% of the nation's cafeteria workers and some corporations that sell food to schools. Some of the SNA's school-district members are struggling to meet the new standards: they complain that students are wasting the healthier food by throwing it away, and that schools have lost revenue because more kids are packing a bag rather than buying lunch. (The United States Department of Agriculture challenges those assertions, and says that 90% of school districts are already meeting the new standards.)

In response, the SNA hired a new Republican lobbying firm and firmly backed the House GOP's efforts this year to postpone the new regulations. But many observers also believe some of SNA's recent board changes, and its new president, played an outsized role in its new combative stance: the changes gave some of the SNA's corporate members, who are donating more money than ever before, more power. Those members face revenue losses under the new school lunch program because their foods don't – and can't – meet the administration's basic nutrition standards. The frozen-food company Schwan's – which makes the school-grade pizza I had the misfortune to eat – is one of those newly influential members.

And last week, their point of view about the importance of school lunch pizza was on display when Obama administration officials convened a private meeting between the opposing sides in this fight. USDA officials opened by restating their commitment to the new standards, and the bill supported by Schwan's and the SNA will never pass the Senate. Representatives from the SNA, however, reiterated their concerns, and indicated they were not backing down.

There's more at stake, of course, than whether kids think Schwan's pizzas – or any of these lunches – are great. The school lunch program is the best tool we have for feeding the nation's 16m children living in poverty. And the pizza fight is just one front in a conservative attack on the program – a way to make sure that if their fight to take away food from these kids fails, their corporate donors will still be able to make a buck.

Advocates worry what this fight – and its staying power – poses for the future. "There are very few big levers we can pull in the fight over hunger and obesity", says Scott Faber, who works on food and farm policy for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. "School lunch is one of the biggest." But some people in Washington are more than happy to push that lever the other way – especially if they can make money doing so.


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