The ketchup is a vegetable controversy refers to proposed United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) regulations, early in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, that intended to provide more flexibility in meal planning to local school lunch administrators coping with National School Lunch Plan subsidy cuts enacted by the Omnibus Regulation Acts of 1980 and 1981. The regulations allowed administrators the opportunity to credit items not explicitly listed that met nutritional requirements. While ketchup was not mentioned in the original regulations, pickle relish was used as an example of an item that could count as a vegetable. A similar controversy arose in 2011 when Congress passed a bill prohibiting the USDA from increasing the amount of tomato paste required to constitute a vegetable; the bill allowed pizza with two tablespoons of tomato paste to qualify as a vegetable.
Did the Reagan-era USDA really classify ketchup as a vegetable?
July 16, 2004
Ketchup and other food products are classified for different purposes by different agencies under a wide variety of federal programs. The classification in this case was by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its subsidized school lunch program. Then as now, local school districts could receive reimbursement for each lunch served provided it met minimum standards. In mid-1981, only a few months after Reagan took office, Congress cut $1 billion from child-nutrition funding and gave the USDA 90 days–the blink of an eye, for the federal bureaucracy–to come up with new standards that would enable school districts to economize, in theory without compromising nutrition.
The USDA convened a panel of nutritionists and food service directors to ponder what to do. One option on the table–no one later would admit to putting it there–was to “accept catsup as a fruit/vegetable when used as an ingredient.” Some panel members seized on this as an opportunity to discuss whether to count ketchup even if used as a condiment. From what I can tell, the motive wasn’t so much penuriousness as trying to face facts about what kids would actually eat. USDA standards at the time required that a reimbursable lunch consist of five items: meat, milk, bread, and two servings of fruit or vegetables. Many kids refused to eat the veggies and the stuff wound up as “plate waste.” Would-be realists on the panel reasoned that if they could count ketchup as a vegetable they could meet federal standards without having to throw away so many lima beans, thereby saving money while having no impact on the kids. Looked at in a certain light, it made sense. Ketchup wasn’t the only newly permissible substitute: pickle relish and conceivably other condiments could also count as vegetables (precise interpretation was left to state officials); protein sources like tofu or cottage cheese could replace meat; and corn chips, pretzels, and other snacks could replace bread. Minimum portion sizes were also reduced, purportedly another effort to reduce waste.