In 2011, the House Appropriations Committee passed an agricultural appropriations bill, which, among other things, designated two tablespoons of tomato paste as a full serving of vegetables. This ruling was intended to impact national regulations for school lunch programs, but it ultimately generated an unintended and irrational public debate: is pizza considered a vegetable?
Congress likely never anticipated that their bill would generate so much public interest in the vegetable content of pizza, but they started a social movement.
Vegetable or Fruit?
Is the tomato a fruit or a vegetable? It has been an age-old contention that has polarized many friends, colleagues and families. The 2011 appropriations bill officially classified the tomato as a vegetable, ending that debate, but sparking a more divisive one.
The House Appropriation Committee’s classification also affected the nutritional value of all foods containing tomatoes and their paste, including pizza. From this connection, many believed that the U.S. Congress had designated pizza as a vegetable for school lunch programs.
Media Influence and Escalation
The story became wide-spread news. Publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio (NPR) even reported about the vote from both positive and negative viewpoints.
The initial reporting was incredibly influential over the public’s perception of the House’s bill. Whether an article truly argued that Congress had designated pizza as a vegetable or not, their gimmicky headlines equated the bill with this outlandish idea and gave the rumor more plausibility.
Society Says Pizza is Not a Vegetable
The congressional ruling and media coverage created a social uproar. Suddenly, popular culture was divided over the purpose and outcome of the bill’s ruling. Shocked by the idea that anyone would believe pizza is actually a vegetable, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram users flooded the platforms with outrage, confusion, and many, many jokes.
Magazines and newspapers continued to capitalize on the bill’s shocking popularity by:
- posting articles about the social backlash,
- clarifying the bill’s true emphasis on tomato paste,
- and spreading the news of the bill further into popular culture.
Society is Unpredictable
The bill’s unusual reception is an excellent example of how messaging and public perception are unpredictable. Even a specialized agricultural bill about tomato paste sends messages to the public and generates dialogue.
This dialogue usually flows predictably, but, as evidenced by the bill’s backlash, public conversation can differ dramatically from a message’s intended outcome.
Strategic, clear communication can help minimize the possibility of unmanageable reactions to messaging. Media is a powerful tool with the ability to generate lasting changes in society. That’s why it must be used purposefully and effectively.
Debates Never Truly End
Even 8 years later, my friends and I still recall the time that Congress made pizza a vegetable, even though we know the bill does not directly reference pizza.
Do you think the media affected public perception of the agricultural appropriations bill? Leave your opinion in a comment below.