Most kids know that when their parents encourage them to eat their vegetables; they are not talking about pizza. But in the National School Lunch Program for years pizza counted as a vegetable due to the small amount of tomato paste used on a slice of pizza.

Thanks to the passage last year of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, that is all beginning to change. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has begun the process of making meals in schools healthier by using scientific information to limit the amount of potatoes served in school and treating tomato paste as any other fruit or vegetable puree.

What does that mean for your kids’ school lunch? That a slice of pizza won’t get credit as a serving of vegetables unless it includes an unappetizing half-cup of tomato paste. Schools will still buy and serve pizza, but this important change will mean that pizza makers must add more vegetables to their products or schools must serve vegetables on the side in order for the lunch to count as a serving of a vegetables.

Not surprisingly, special interest lobbyists are trying to change the rules through the “minibus” appropriations bill moving through Congress right now. Under their plan, not only will pizza continue to count as a vegetable, but Congress would also take a stand in favor of childhood obesity, by blocking USDA’s efforts to limit starchy vegetables to two servings a week, limit sodium, and establish a clear definition of whole grains.

The Federal Government spends almost $15 billion a year on school meals. With childhood obesity rates already alarmingly high and rising, that money should be directed to healthy foods that give kids a better chance at healthy lifestyles.

The “minibus” appropriations bill that provides funding for USDA programs through FY 2012 isn’t all bad. It will fully fund many important nutrition initiatives, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Women Infants and Children Programs (WIC), and the School Lunch Program. We applaud Congress for protecting them as families continue to recover from the economic downturn

But the special interest provisions in this legislation are an unwelcome and unhealthy step backward in the effort to provide better nutrition for America’s kids, stem the growing childhood obesity epidemic, and deliver real value for every child nutrition dollar.