“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
This quote from Ghandi rings true in the hearts and minds of seventh and eighth grade students at Gorton Junior High School, as they wrote a letter to Congressman Jim Langevin last month letting him know they won’t be fooled into believing pizza is a vegetable.
“We were always told pizza is not the healthiest food for you,” eighth grader Nick Kidd, 13, the president of the student council, said to Langevin during a presentation at Gorton on Tuesday morning. “We weren’t born yesterday.”
In the letter, the students expressed their outrage that federal rules allow the 1/8 of a cup of tomato paste on pizza to be categorized as a vegetable serving. They requested Langevin’s opinion on school food regulations, as well.
“We respectfully ask your opinion on this matter and would like to know how we can correct this travesty and get more healthy food into the school lunch food menu,” the letter read, which was signed by Nick, as well as Vice President Nate Genest, 13, and Secretary Julia French, 12, both eighth graders. “We are told in health class to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. Isn’t this hypocritical? We might be young, but we’re not stupid.”
Langevin said he was thrilled to hear from the children and listened to their input about why they feel slighted. James Arena-DeRosa, the Northeast Regional Administrator for the United States Department of Agriculture, joined him on the visit and the two also stopped by Hamilton Elementary School for a roundtable discussion and a presentation by North Kingstown Food Services Manager, Patricia Cawley, later that afternoon.
At Gorton, students continued to tell Langevin A that pizza is not a vegetable.
“Saying that pizza is a vegetable is also saying that the chemical concoction that they make that looks like a pizza is a vegetable,” Nick said.
Julia also was part of the presentation. She shared 10 tips to a “great plate,” which was composed by the Department of Agriculture. Balancing calories was on the top of the list.
“We researched that 2,000 calories is the average a kid our age should eat throughout the day and pizza that’s served here has around 1,000 calories, half of what were supposed to eat,” Julia said.
Also in the mix were to enjoy food, but eat less and avoid oversized portions; eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains by preparing plates with half fruits and vegetables; switch to two percent milk; make half grains consumed whole grains; and avoid sugary drinks, as well as prepared sodium. Foods to eat less often were also included.
“Pizza is in there and it’s in the category with cookies, ice cream and candy,” Julia said. “If it’s in there, why should it be a vegetable? We all know candy is not a vegetable.”
Nate continued the presentation. He said that classifying pizza as a vegetable runs the risk of confusing children.
“We’ve been brought up to know it’s not something to eat everyday,” he said.
He also said many of the ingredients included in the pizza served at schools, as well as frozen prepared pizza that can be purchased in grocery stores, are absurd.
“They sound like stuff you’d talk about in science class and not a cafeteria,” he said. “Half the ingredients sound like stuff that would go in shampoo.”
Following the presentation, seventh graders also shared their input. Only one said he thinks “certain types” of pizza should be considered vegetables.
“I think it would be OK if pizza is made with natural ingredients from our local farms and whole grain dough,” said Nicholas Leland, 12.“If all the unhealthy types mix in with them and they get confused.”
But, all the others were less flexible.
“Even if you add onions or something on top it’s not a vegetable,” Scott Reynolds, 12. “Cheese and grains aren’t vegetables.”
“I don’t get how it’s a vegetable,” said Rhianna Bellows, 12. “It makes no sense.”
Lauren Canning, 12, agreed.
“Vegetables can’t be something that has a recipe,” she said.
Kelsey Carreiro, 12, felt the same.
“Taking pizza and calling it a vegetable is almost like baking a cake and saying, ‘This cake has milk in it so it’s a dairy product,’” she said.
“I agree,” said Maddie Axtmann, 12. “It’s like saying apple pie is a fruit because it has apples in it.”
Angus Nathan, 12, had a similar testimony.
“It’s like saying all the artificial ingredients make it a vegetable,” he said.
Kyle Gray, 12, said, “It already has half the calories you need for the whole day.”
Coral Houghton, 13, said she often prepares pizza with her father. They prefer the homemade kind.
“We always use fresh tomatoes from my aunt’s garden instead of using tomato paste,” she said.
Tyler Ferreira, 12, agreed. He said his stepmother makes tomato sauce and uses flavorful spices, as opposed to artificial products.
“I look at the school sauce and compare hers to it and it doesn’t look equal,” he said. “She makes it fresh and picks tomatoes from our garden for it.”
While Sam LaFrance, 13, said he thinks pizza has the potential to be healthier, he doesn’t plan on calling it a vegetable.
“My mom says if it doesn’t grow on trees or from the ground it’s not a vegetable,” he said.
During the presentation, the Congressman and Arena-DeRosa addressed the students’ concerns and suggested the expansion of the Farm to School initiative as part of the solution.
Langevin promoted the program in visits with students, parents, and leaders of the state’s education and agricultural communities, and further examined ways to increase the availability of local produce in schools. Kids First Farm to School Coordinator Kimberly Clark, who took part in the events and reported that schools in all 36 Rhode Island districts purchased state-grown produce in 2011, organizes Rhode Island’s effort.
The focus on Rhode Island’s Farm to School program was built on a forum Langevin hosted for the state’s agriculture community in November, at which Langevin emphasized the potential for farmers to contribute to renewing the economy. In the last Agriculture Census in 2007, the USDA found about ten percent of the state’s land was farm owned.
Further, crop sales had risen 18 percent since the previous measurement in 2002 and the number of farms had grown 42 percent, the second highest increase in the country.
Langevin and Arena-DeRosa told students that the program provides fresh, locally produced food to schools. It also helps give small farmers new marketing opportunities and school children the chance to learn how food is produced.
“It’s good for the local economy, it’s good for the environment,” Arena-DeRosa said.
In the past, students had a fruit and vegetable farm at Sts. Rose and Clement Parish at 111 Long Street. Unfortunately, rain prevented them from doing much gardening the last few years.
But, the students said they plan to continue their efforts to encourage healthier food in school lunchrooms.
But, Michelle Gould, 12, was concerned about chemicals used to grow fruits and vegetables. She explained that she recently conducted a science project on chemicals for her science class and had one plant with fertilizer, one without, as well as an organic plant.
“Most people think it will grow faster and better with fertilizer but the one without grew fast and the other two rotted,” she said.
Langevin said he would keep her notion in mind for the future. By the end of the discussion, he said he hopes the students continue their efforts.
Nick said they plan to.
“I want to continue to voice our opinions and send another in to try to change their decisions,” he said. “Maybe it will be helpful.”
School Superintendent Dr. Peter P. Horoschak suggested the children to continue their efforts in reminding government officials of the importance of having healthier food in their lunch program. He also said eating nutritious food and encouraging their peers to eat well.
“Take charge of your own actions,” he said. “Talk to other students about it and practice what you are talking about. That will make an impact.”
Of course, their social studies teachers, Arthur Andolfo, Peter Stone, and retired teacher Stephen Andolfo, who volunteers at the school, are proud of them.
“It’s a phenomenal effort by the students,” said Stephen.
They students said not only did they learn about more about pizza, they received a unique education on local government. After all, it isn’t everyday a Congressman visits.
“This has been a great process,” Nick said.
Julia agreed and said, “A couple seventh and eighth graders can make a difference.”