Last year at this time I started working on a story about childhood obesity in a couple of small towns in Ventura County, and how different the picture looked in an upscale, mostly white town such as Ojai, where childhood obesity runs behind the national average of about 35%, and how it looks in the poorer, mostly Latino town of Santa Paula, where childhood obesity prevalence is among the highest in the state, at about 48%.
Interviewing the director of food services for Ojai's schools, I learned that she does not allow frozen pizza at all for her students eating school lunches, and did what she could to discourage parents from bringing pizza to after-school events. By contrast, I heard from a student at Santa Paula High, most students went for the frozen pizza at the high school every day.
Naturally I wondered if there was a connection to the high rates of obesity, but my adviser at USC/Annenberg's Health Reporting fellowship, discouraged me pointing the finger of blame at a single food for Santa Paula's obesity problem.
So my ears perked up when today I came across a characteristically strong but unusually wide-ranging column from Paul Krugman at the NYTimes, who argues that based on contributions, it's fair to say that Republicans are "the party of Big Energy and Big Food…and in particular, the party of Big Pizza."
Could caloric frozen pizza explain the obesity problem among kids eating free and reduced lunches?
Krugman pointed to a great story in Bloomberg Business, with some potent graphics, which show that big pizza companies — both retail and school food companies — give crazy amounts of money to the GOP, and almost nothing to the Democrats. To wit:
It's startling. And it made me wonder again about the contribution of pizza towards obesity, especially after discovering that frozen pizza was trying to get credit as a vegetable for its tomato sauce, which seemed (to put it politely) a stretch (and not just to me):
Under the existing rules, tomato paste is given extra credit toward a vegetable serving because it's made of concentrated tomatoes. So 2 tablespoons of tomato paste — roughly the amount on a slice of pizza — is counted as a half a cup, or the equivalent of one vegetable serving. For school lunch purposes, a slice of pizza was considered a serving of vegetables, a point first made by [nutrition advocate] Wootan in 2011 that became a late-night punchline. The Department of Agriculture’s new rules, though, would have stopped giving tomato paste extra credit: From now on, 2 tablespoons would count as 2 tablespoons. Kraig Naasz, CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute, a trade group that lobbies for frozen pizza, says the tomato paste rule was simply a crafty way to get pizza out of schools: “None of our members wanted the federal government to say, ‘Pizza is bad for you.’ You would have been telling an entire generation that pizza is a food you shouldn’t consume.”
Back at his desk, Krugman wondered about an association between GOP dominated states and obesity, and finds, according to a CDC plot, that the answer is yes — even if you look only at obesity among non-Hispanic white people, the "diabetes belt" of the nation tends to be Southern and conservative politically.
But my advisor Martha Shirk in turn argued that pizza in the schools has changed in recent years, and I didn't have the "smoking gun" kind of evidence to make that accusation. The validity of her point can be seen in a letter from a second-grader in Louisiana this past week, very much in the "diabetes belt," who complained to the First Lady, who famously led the charge for better foods and more activity in schools.
Trip Kilbert complained in his letter that the new pizza, made of whole grains, was "terrible." First Lady Michelle Obama wrote back and sent consolation and some pictures, but wouldn't change the menu.
Leaping to a conclusion: if a second-grader doesn't like the whole grain frozen pizza, maybe it's not as obesogenic as it used to be, as Martha said, and can't be held responsible for a generation's obesity problem.
Darn it. Would have been so simple!