Will Ketchup Still be a Vegetable?

In 2011, the USDA tried to implement its final rules on nutrition standards for school lunches. Most of their proposals for implementation has provoked more than the usual level of fuss. The most controversial was the limits on the amount of starchy vegetables like potatoes allowed in lunches and required more green vegetables. The other move was to count half-cup of tomato paste as a serving of vegetables, rather than the current standard of two tablespoons.

Congress passed a bill that barred this move, and it resulted in widespread mockery. Some headlines stated that Congress had declared pizza as a vegetable. Blocking the legislation stirred up criticisms, because it was considered as a substantial blow to efforts in making school lunches healthier.

The “Ketchup as a Vegetable” Controversy

During Ronald Reagan’s term as president, one of the weird things that happened was ketchup was considered a vegetable. It has been a running joke during lunch periods whenever things with ketchup are served in the cafeteria, students will say, “Good thing Ronald Reagan says ketchup is a vegetable.” But did the former president really declare ketchup a vegetable during his term?

The process of making ketchup a vegetable began before Reagan entered office. There were big changes to the funding of school lunch programs, and Congress had cut one billion dollars from child nutrition funding. Some school lunches were becoming privatized. To meet nutrition guidelines while saving money, nutritionists from the Department of Agriculture began to redefine and re-categorize some foods’ nutritional status. Not all suggestions seemed to be outrageous. But the idea of having pickle relish and ketchup as vegetables was met with derision.

Ketchup and other food products are classified for various purposes by different agencies for their own purposes. This specific classification was for the USDA’s subsidized school lunch program, where school lunch programs can receive funding for the lunch they served, as long as it meets nutritional standards. Local school districts can receive reimbursements for each lunch they served, provided that it met minimum standards. In mid-1981, a few months before Ronald Reagan took office, Congress cut $1 billion from nutrition funding and gave the USDA only 90 days to create new standards that will help school districts to economize without compromising nutrition.

The USDA convened a panel of food service directors and nutritionists to help. While no one would later admit to putting it there, one option was to accept ketchup as a fruit or vegetable when used as an ingredient. Some panel members seized on this as an opportunity to discuss whether to count ketchup even if it’s used as a condiment.

That time, the USDA standards required that the reimbursable lunch consisted of these five items: milk, meat, bread, and two servings of fruit or vegetables. A lot of kids would not eat vegetables or fruits, and it would only end up as plate waste. Realists on the panel reasoned that if they can count ketchup as a vegetable, they can meet federal standards without having to throw away wasted fruits and veggies, thereby saving money with having no impact on the kids. That time, ketchup wasn’t the only new permissible substitute, pickle relish and other condiments could also count as vegetables. Cottage cheese and tofu can replace meat; pretzels, corn chips, and other snacks can replace bread.

The 90-day deadline for USDA did not allow time for higher review. When the proposed new rules were released for public comments in September 1981, food activists fired up criticisms.

Ronald Reagan had nothing to do with the legislation, nor did his predecessor Jimmy Carter. The idea that any president would declare ketchup as a vegetable seems a bit out there, but many people believed it. The condiment became a go-to visual for skeptics to cite when they criticized the Reagan Administration and these proposed regulations. But how come?

These school lunch changes happened during an economic depression. During the 1982 recession, unemployment rates reached its highest since the Great Depression. Reagan emerged with new support, enabling him to push through a budget bill that resulted in 400,000 people losing their welfare benefits. Domestic spending was slashed off by $39 billion.

Reagan was perceived as uncaring and callous to the poor, and the Democrats lashed out against him. Their favorite gaff to throw at him was ketchup, being classified as a vegetable to save money on school lunches.

The administration soon withdrew this proposal due in part to sharp criticism, and the USDA official in charge of that program was transferred. As a result, USDA settled with “offer vs. serve.” Students have to be offered all the required school lunch components, but students are now allowed to refuse two of the components. This helped lessen food waste.

USDA Issued New School Lunch Rules

In 2017, changes to school lunch rules were announced by the USDA. They relaxed both sodium and whole grains requirements and allowed schools to serve low-fat flavored milk. The full compliance for provisions was pushed back to the end of the 2018-2019 school year, and for some, until 2021.

Since 2012, almost 100 percent of the participating schools have complied with the updates on school meal standards – meals with less salt, less saturated fat, less sugar, 16 percent more veggies, and 23 percent more fruit. The ruling in 2017 seemed to have reversed the progress. The ruling was changed again as some schools were having a hard time complying with the standards, and that kids are throwing their food away.

Though these changes were a far cry from classifying ketchup as a vegetable, the tomato re-classification has not been fully banished due to a 2011 bill that sought to reclassify tomato paste as a vegetable. So, the public will still keep watch on the processed tomato products front.