The 1981 Ketchup as a Vegetable debacle has rendered ketchup an indelible fixture in our political as well as our culinary culture. In the Reagan administration’s attempt to slash $1.5 billion from children’s nutrition funding, school lunch program requirements were worded (whether deliberately or not) so as to conceivably allow for designating ketchup as a vegetable, allowing the USDA to eliminate one of the two vegetables required to meet minimum food and nutrition standards, and thus shrink costs considerably. While the proposal included other changes that involved similar, dramatic category shifting, these received only minor attention compared to the idea of the salt and sucrose–laden condiment ketchup as an equivalent to a bona fide vegetable. Ketchup came to symbolize the malevolence of the economic policy of the Ronald Reagan presidency even as it underscored the deep government indifference to children in lower-income and minority populations.

Ketchup: arguably the United States’ most ubiquitous condiment. Open most Americans’ refrigerators and you are likely to see a ketchup bottle, or two, lurking in the inside door shelf or tucked away with the odd assortment of pickles, mayo, and mustard. In fact, statistics show that most people—93 percent—used ketchup in the past year (most often Heinz), consumption that is expected to increase over the next half decade (Statista 2019). Americans on average spend upward of $16 per year on ketchup. We purportedly spend more money on salsa, but in terms of sheer volume ketchup comes up on top, as we buy almost two trillion ounces of ketchup annually—the equivalent of six bottles per person per year (Statista 2019; Bialik 2007). Bright red in color, tangy, sweet, salty, and replete with a “meaty,” tomatoey umami hit, ketchup provides color and flavoring accents, as well as aroma and texture cues that are familiar and comforting.

While ketchup originally began as a fermented fish sauce in early China (sans tomatoes), it traveled via the English navy around the world and found a home in the British motherland (Jurofsky 2014). Ketchup became truly American once it was wed with the tomato and bottled industrially. American tomato ketchup’s original flavor profile was both less sweet and less sour that its later iterations, and through the twentieth century ketchup gradually became sweeter in its flavor profile (Rozin 1994; Gagliano 2014). By the early twentieth century tomato ketchup had become “entrenched as the primary and most popular of condimental sauces, its appeal to Americans deep and widespread” (Rozin 1994: 108). The “Esperanto of cuisine,” as Elizabeth Rozin describes it, ketchup early on functioned as a great equalizer given its “special and unprecedented ability to provide something for everyone” (108). It has become, she notes, “accepted and enjoyed for its very ‘Americanism,’ its use largely constrained and limited by foods and products experienced and perceived as American in their preparation and presentation” (108). In short, ketchup, an industrial product that came of age in an industrializing United States, is the perfect accent to the largely brown and beige, fat- and salt-forward American diet featuring breaded, fried meats and salty potatoes.

Not only do Americans recognize ketchup as the classic and iconic American condiment, so does the rest of the world, which for better or worse regards it as emblematic of US cuisine in general. Famed chef José Andrés remarked, “Everyone else in the world still thinks of American food as ketchup,” and instead of being ashamed of it, Andrés noted, “It’s time to embrace and celebrate [it]” (Moskin 2011). In fact, in good American fashion we have exported ketchup abroad and the condiment has made its way into numerous cuisines in novel ways.

Yet because of the 1981 Ketchup as a Vegetable debacle, ketchup has become an indelible fixture in our political as well as our culinary culture. This article illuminates this moment as it was framed through the media, describes the late twentieth-century landscape of food that provided a backdrop for the event, then delves more deeply into the government’s controversial recommendations regarding school lunch. As detailed below, in the Reagan administration’s attempt to slash $1.5 billion from children’s nutrition funding, school lunch program requirements were worded (whether deliberately or not) so as to conceivably allow for designating ketchup as a vegetable, allowing the USDA to eliminate one of the two vegetables required to meet minimum food and nutrition standards, and thus shrink costs considerably. While the proposal included other changes that involved similar, dramatic category-shifting, these received only minor attention compared to the idea of the salt and sucrose–laden condiment ketchup as equivalent to a bona fide vegetable. The debacle further underscores the deep government indifference to lower-income and minority populations, and children in particular. Recognizing ketchup’s distinct, democratic, yet exalted place in the landscape of American food is important to understanding the power of the 1981 Ketchup as a Vegetable debacle—how ketchup came to symbolize the malevolence of the economic policy of the Ronald Reagan presidency.

Ketchup as a Vegetable: The Event and Its Aftermath

The Ketchup as a Vegetable incident was an attempted policy change gone awry, one part of the larger plan to dramatically alter the nature and process of government food assistance programs within the backdrop of the era’s overall budget restructuring (Levine 2008). In 1981, the first year of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, the government was deep in the throes of “Reaganomics,” the economic policy focusing on overall reduction of government spending, taxes, and regulation. David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), orchestrated the plan to dramatically cut the federal budget, shrink government size, and slash taxes—especially for the wealthy. According to the prevailing economic theory known as supply-side or “trickle-down” economics, with their extra capital the wealthy would then invest in and create businesses that would boost the economy, and employ and benefit the average citizen (Reagan 1981).1 In the summer of 1981 Congress passed and the president signed the budget, known as the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981. The budget sought to control spending in large part by consolidating most federal expenditures into block grants, which were transferred to the states for ultimate allocation. The act also dramatically reduced budgets across the board, except for defense, the budget for which was significantly increased.

Apart from the Department of Defense, then, all federal agencies, including the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), were each charged to cut their budgets by several billion dollars.2 Within the USDA, federal school lunch expenditures were to be chopped by one-third, from $4.5 billion to $3 billion. As Congress authorized the cuts, it also specified that the USDA should nonetheless maintain the current nutrition standards of the federal school lunch program. In the summer of 1981 a USDA Taskforce Group, overseen by Food and Nutrition Service administrator (and Reagan appointee) William Hoagland, met to put together a set of proposals enabling the reduction in costs. Because the USDA was mandated to meet an October 1, 1981 deadline, the beginning of the new budget year, the Task Force had just twelve weeks to produce the school lunch reformulations with proposals that would maintain nutrition standards at two-thirds of the cost. Federal law requires that such legislative proposals be made public a month in advance to allow sufficient time for comment. To meet that deadline the school lunch revisions, apparently with OMB approval, were published on September 4, 1981, on page 44452 of the Federal Register (“Report Says” 1985; Federal Register 1981).

The proposed 1981 recommendations, as outlined in the Federal Register, sought to simplify local recordkeeping to reduce costs, but they also recommended several changes that provided flexibility in what was to be served for the noontime meal. Prior to this moment, federal guidelines mandated that school lunches had to contain a minimum of five items: one serving of bread, two of fruits and/or vegetables, one dairy serving, and one meat serving. USDA guidelines also determined adequate serving amounts and appropriate items. The combined items were to meet one-third of RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances), as determined by the USDA.

These school lunch requirements represented a conventional, mid-century definition of a meal. If you asked mid-twentieth-century Americans to define “meal,” most would indicate it consisted of what anthropologist Mary Douglas (1972) termed “A+2b,” “A” being the larger portion of protein (usually meat) and “b” being sides, usually a green vegetable and a starch of some sort, such as potatoes, corn, or rice. A slice of bread was useful in sopping up gravy or juices, and milk was a common beverage, especially for children.

By contrast, the new proposed guidelines recommended a (for the time) somewhat startling list of ways to alter this conventional model. These included reducing meal sizes; offering certain substitutes for meat and vegetables; allowing changes in meal patterns; and reconciling differences between allowable breakfast items and lunch items. Specific changes included allowing tofu, cheese, and nuts to substitute for meat; allowing pretzels, donuts, pie, and other grain-based items as bread substitutes; reducing the requirement that school lunch meet one-third of the RDAs to one-fourth of daily needs; allowing such condiments as pickle relish to count as a vegetable; and allowing one tablespoon of tomato paste to count as an equivalent to one-fourth cup of tomato juice, considered a standard vegetable serving. Ketchup (or catsup) was not mentioned by name, although the regulations did state that “tomato concentrate” would qualify as a vegetable. It did not define the term further.

Thus, as part of the Reagan administration’s attempt to slash $1.5 billion from children’s nutrition funding, the recommendations were worded (whether deliberately or not) so as to conceivably allow for designating ketchup as a vegetable for its school lunch programs. If it was not deliberate, then naming pickle relish as a vegetable certainly opened the door to claiming “condiments” as a category to be the equivalent of vegetables. Although perhaps an absurd idea to most school lunch providers across the country, the wording would potentially enable the USDA to eliminate one of the two vegetables required to meet minimum food and nutrition standards, and thus shrink costs considerably. While the proposal included other changes that involved similar, dramatic category-shifting (discussed later), these received only minor attention compared to the idea of the salt and sucrose–laden condiment ketchup as an equivalent to a bona fide vegetable.

After the recommendations were published in the Federal Register on September 4, there ensued a wave of publicity, which began quietly but quickly reached an intense furor. The following day, September 5, two small items appeared in the New York Times mentioning the proposed school lunch changes, discussing them in terms of shrinking portions and lowering nutritional standards. “Smaller school lunches have been proposed by the Agriculture Department for the federally subsidized lunch program in schools throughout the country,” explained one story. “The proposal would abandon a goal set at the program’s inception 35 years ago: to serve lunches that give children one-third of the recommended dietary allowances for a variety of nutrients,” indicated the other (“National” 1981; Pear 1981).

Five days after the recommendations were published in the Federal Register, the word ketchup came into play. “When Is Ketchup a Vegetable? When Tofu Is Meat,” ran the Washington Post headline on September 9. The first sentence framed the story: “The federal government, in major new changes for the nation’s school-lunch program, wants to call ketchup and pickle relish vegetables, offer tofu as a substitute for meat and serve peanut butter or nuts as main dishes at noon” (Sinclair 1981). Columnist Russell Baker quipped, “The authors of this plan are now debating whether school-lunch costs can be whittled further by counting ketchup on the French fries—the number of French fries would also be reduced—as a second vegetable. That way you wouldn’t have to squander money by supplying peas if the little chiselers insist on ketchup for their fries” (Baker 1981).

Consumer advocacy groups went into high alert, as did Congress, which scheduled education subcommittee meetings to delve into the school lunch program revisions. Food industry watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued its own press release on September 11, the headline of which read, “USDA Undermines the Nutritional Integrity of School Meals.” “The Department of Agriculture,” the release began, “has proposed changes in the school lunch program that would diminish not only the quantity but the quality of foods served. The new regulations would allow schools to serve cakes, cookies, doughnuts, pies, corn chips, or pretzels in place of bread; and condiments such as pickle relish and tomato paste instead of a vegetable.” Notably, the release did not use the word ketchup; rather, it focused more on the changes to the bread requirement and another that eliminated the option of low-fat milk (only allowing whole milk was proffered as a cost-saving measure) (CSPI 1981).

Yet within two weeks the media focused squarely on the Ketchup as a Vegetable part of the proposal. Echoing a popular Burger King advertising slogan, “Hold the pickles, hold the relish, special orders don’t upset us,” the Washington Post ran an article with the headline, “U.S. Holds the Ketchup in School” (Thornton and Schram 1981). Pun-filled titles and phrases in newspaper stories multiplied: “Shrinking Lunch, With Relish” (1981), “Down with Ketchup, Up with Tofu” (1981), “The Emperor’s New Condiments” (“Briefings,” Clines and Weinraub 1981), and “Reagan’s Nouvelle Cuisine for Kids” (Goodman 1981).

To highlight the seeming absurdity of these recommendations, several Democratic senators, including Patrick Leahy of Vermont, held a photo-op on September 24, just under three weeks after the proposal announcement. Invited reporters and photographers documented a row of senators consuming a lunch based on the new recommendations for kindergarteners: a tiny meat-and-soybean patty, a slice of bread, a few French fries, ketchup, and a partially filled glass of milk (“Senate Democrats” 1981).

The outrage included GOP members of Congress as well, including Senator Henry J. Heinz, a Republication from Pennsylvania whose family-owned business, H. J. Heinz Company, manufactured Heinz ketchup. On September 25 Heinz took to the Senate floor and called the whole proposal “ludicrous.” “Ketchup is a condiment,” he said. “This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I do know something about ketchup and relish, or did at one time” (Thornton and Schram 1981).

Figure 1:

(from right to left) Democratic senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Robert Byrd (WV), and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (SC) protest revised school lunch standards under the $1.5 billion USDA proposed budget cuts. The bad press and public outcry over the notion of ketchup counting as a vegetable prevented their implementation.

Photo credit: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library; Roddey Mims Collection, 1976–82; 9/24/81, Senate Democrats Dine on School Lunch (T-30630); NAID: 152023.

Figure 1:

(from right to left) Democratic senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Robert Byrd (WV), and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (SC) protest revised school lunch standards under the $1.5 billion USDA proposed budget cuts. The bad press and public outcry over the notion of ketchup counting as a vegetable prevented their implementation.

Photo credit: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library; Roddey Mims Collection, 1976–82; 9/24/81, Senate Democrats Dine on School Lunch (T-30630); NAID: 152023.

The same day as Heinz’s condemnation on the Senate floor, barely three weeks after the proposal was published, the White House withdrew the proposal. Reagan, though never publicly addressing or defending the subject, detested the bad publicity and as the uproar increased realized they had lost the public relations battle, and sought to change the subject. “Charging that the Agriculture Department ‘not only has egg on its face, but ketchup, too,’ the Washington Post reported, “Budget Director David A. Stockman…ordered the withdrawal of proposed federal rules that would have listed ketchup and pickle relish as vegetables in school lunches.” The article continued, “[Stockman] said the controversial guidelines, which also would have allowed the substitution of soybean cakes for hamburger and doughnuts for bread, were the result of a ‘bureaucratic goof’” (Thornton and Schram 1981).

Stockman’s attempt at damage control raised the ire of Secretary of Agriculture John Block, who immediately went to the White House to meet with the president, expressing his disapproval of the proposal’s demise without his knowledge and consent. Angered by Stockman’s dismissive remarks, Block in a public statement sought to at least defend his agency’s original purpose and intentions. “The president and I both feel that the intent was sound and in step with the administration’s goal to reduce regulation and return flexibility to the local units of government” (Thornton and Schram 1981).

Later in a press conference an aide to Block awkwardly attempted to defend the recommendations. “There was a great misunderstanding in the land as to how these regulations are viewed,” the aide reported. “I think it would be a mistake to say that ketchup per se was classified as a vegetable.…Ketchup in combination with other things was classified as a vegetable.” When asked what were those other things, he replied, “French fries or hamburgers” (Thornton and Schram 1981).

By November the administration had moved to adopt an “offer versus serve” model (that had been in existence at the high school level) as a way to save money and reduce portion sizes and plate waste. Students would only have to take three out of five items available, a policy still in practice. “‘Certainly we’ve taken care of the condiment issues,’ [Food and Nutrition Service administrator] William Hoagland said, a reference to the earlier proposal for counting ketchup and relish as a vegetable” (“Reagan Gets New” 1981). The New York Times noted, “Initially White House officials maintained the proposals were being misunderstood and misrepresented, but eventually they decided to recommend their withdrawal” (Weisman 1981).

Throughout this three-and-a-half-week period, from the time the administration published its recommendations for altering school lunch to meet budget cuts, to its withdrawal of those recommendations and shift to the “offer versus serve” option, nutrition and child advocacy groups voiced their vociferous criticism. Ketchup as a Vegetable became the emblematic shorthand for the entire set of proposed changes to school lunches. The head of the Field Fund, a leading liberal philanthropic organization, indicated that her strong motivation to fight Reagan administration recommendations “could be explained in one word—ketchup” (Teltsch 1981).

The Food Research Action Center (FRAC), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., was instrumental in defeating the school lunch cuts. FRAC employee Lynn Parker, who had participated in the USDA Task Force meetings that came up with the school lunch changes, publicly criticized them. Several years later Parker described her experience of being a Task Force member. “I was thinking [of the recommendations in terms of] collective purchasing of food and similar things to reduce costs.…But it was clear from the first day that the USDA wanted us to cut the portion sizes in school lunch programs.” She also noted, “They also wanted ketchup and other condiments to be counted as vegetables” (“Alum Makes a Difference” n.d.). Parker had attempted to work “with members of the committee to make sure that the report stated that the recommendations were made only for economic reasons and that they didn’t have a sound nutrition basis.” When the recommendations resulted in reducing portion sizes of fruits, vegetables, and grains, Parker “led the FRAC campaign against the proposed regulations.” According to her recollections, “‘Ketchup as a vegetable’ became the campaign line” (“Alum Makes a Difference” n.d.).

The Political and Cultural Fallout

After the blowback died down, the government and journalists calculated the fallout. Ultimately, USDA FNS executive Hoagland took the fall for Ketchup as a Vegetable, as he was “lashed on Capitol Hill and skewered by the White House which removed him from his job two days before Thanksgiving,” according to a New York Times story. Hoagland felt betrayed by those higher up who seemed to blame him and his committee for conceiving of the idea in the first place. Later confessing anger and depression over the incident, Hoagland defended his original recommendations on the grounds that they were misinterpreted: “It’s an insult to me and to the school lunchroom officials to say that we would even consider forcing kids to eat ketchup as a vegetable.” Seemingly unable to consider that the proposal might have been so poorly conceived and written as to allow for such a laughable substitution—even if that was not the committee’s intention—Hoagland suspected Ketchup as a Vegetable might have been “hatched in the imaginations of nutrition advocacy groups” (Clines and Gailey 1981).

So powerful was Ketchup as a Vegetable that debate and analysis of the incident continued through the Reagan years and beyond, taking on a life of its own. The Public Health Association, deriding the Reagan administration’s effect on public health policy, argued that “if Congress had followed the Administration’s proposals, [school lunch budgets] would have been down another third with school children eating ketchup and relish as vegetables…how can anyone believe that the Reagan Administration wishes to prevent disease or promote health or preserve public health in America?” (Robbins 1983).

Through the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Ketchup as a Vegetable remained an easy symbol of a world of haves and have nots. A 1986 New York Times letter to the editor commenting on the Hands Across America program (the feel-good event that raised money for charities by creating a giant human chain across the country) observed, “As President and Mrs. Reagan joined the human chain on the White House lawn, I couldn’t help remembering the proposal of Mr. Reagan’s Administration to make ketchup the equivalent of a vegetable in school lunch programs” (Kellogg 1986). George Bush Sr.’s 1988 presidential campaign was dogged with references to Ketchup as a Vegetable. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Referring to [Bush]’s statement last Friday that last month’s rise in the unemployment rate was ‘statistically almost irrelevant,’ [Kitty Dukakis, wife of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis] said it was ‘not surprising, coming as it did from the standard-bearer of the party that thought ketchup was a vegetable’” (Lauter 1988). Humorist Calvin Trillin couldn’t resist coupling former president Richard Nixon’s well-known fondness for a lunch of ketchup over cottage cheese with Ketchup as a Vegetable. “Only now does it become clear that the school lunch decision,” ribbed Trillin (1990), “then considered a public relations disaster, may have reflected some shrewd strategic planning: The Reagan Administration’s policy on ketchup may have been the beginning of the [post–Watergate scandal] public rehabilitation of Richard Nixon.” In reporting on the 1999 discovery of the health benefits of lycopene, found in, among other things, ketchup, Consumer Reports mused, “In 1981, President Ronald Reagan was widely ridiculed for trying to pass off a popular condiment as a school-lunch vegetable. Now if the latest ad campaign [which highlighted lycopene] from condiment maker Heinz is right, ketchup fans may have the last laugh” (“Does Ketchup” 1999).

The Historical and Cultural Context of School Lunch

In order to better understand the brouhaha, it is helpful to locate the incident within the larger history of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Established in 1946, the NSLP underwent modifications in the 1960s and again in the 1970s as government became more attuned to national poverty levels and the effects of malnourishment and inadequate food on growth and development. While early promoters had advocated for universal free lunch as a way to ensure equitable access and avoid stigma, the government instead called for a mandate to provide all “needy” children with free lunches. But with no reinforcement and minimal funds devoted to achieving these goals, low-income children and children of color in particular were subject to inadequate school lunch programs. Eventually the government set tiered pricing—full cost, reduced price, and no cost—depending on a student’s family income. School lunch programs, whose funding streams were separate from the rest of school financing, always struggled financially. The goal was to keep lunches as affordable as possible, but programs were required to break even, and with diminishing budgets school lunch administrators found themselves in a constant struggle: trying to steady the costs of labor and food and still maintain food and nutrition quality (Gaddis 2019; Levine 2008; Poppendieck 2010).

Throughout the 1970s, school lunch continued its downward spiral. Diminishing quality and increased stigma resulted in weakening participation by middle-class children, whose full price payment was needed to fund the entire program. To reduce labor costs program administrators turned to food corporations who promised high-tech solutions of frozen meals that could simply be heated, requiring no skilled cooking. Food companies, whose main goal was to turn a profit, catered to the easy tastes of fat, salt, and sugar. School meals made a hard turn to pizza, chicken patties, and burgers, items that easily appealed to kids but were minimally nutritious, especially as companies were shown to be skimping on protein requirements and other nutrients.

As Jennifer Gaddis (2019: 72) observes:

Poor taste, unpredictable texture, and unappetizing appearance weren’t the only shortcomings. The factory-made frozen meal packs that many poor children ate during the late-1960s and 1970s were often deficient in basic nutrients like iron, calcium, magnesium, and vitamins.…Each reimbursable school lunch was required to contain a minimum of two ounces [of protein] but independent studies and government probes revealed frozen preplated lunches to be short on protein…skimping on protein, the most expensive part of a school lunch, helped industry skim profits from the NSLP.…Shrinking a burger patty or a slice of meatloaf wasn’t the only way to cheapen protein. School lunch officials and convenience food manufacturers also experimented with synthesizing new sources of protein.

Moreover, the 1970s witnessed a remarkable increase in (sugar-, salt-, and fat-laden) children’s food products and the direct marketing to kids on, for example, Saturday morning cartoon shows. It is not difficult to connect the dots and understand how food corporations perceived the benefits of taking over school lunch programs, allowing them to cultivate tastes, and create in children desires and demands for their products that would extend into adulthood (Gaddis 2019; Winson 2004).

Further, during this period many food professionals and the general public adopted a “nutritionism” ethos. Macro- and micronutrients were what really mattered; the substance they came in mattered much less. Thus food was mostly a delivery system for the stuff humans needed to survive and thrive: vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, and carbs (Scrinis 2008). Gaddis (2019: 77) wryly illustrates the thinking: “If kids could get all their necessary macro- and micronutrients from a fortified Super Donut or Tater Tots, why not update school lunches for a new generation of eaters?”

The upshot was that school lunches, while never perfect, were on metaphorical life support. By the 1980s, after decades of decline, school lunch had all but been abandoned by the middle class, and mainly regarded as for lower-income children, which made it easier for government, and the entire nation, to overlook. Because of insufficient funding, and the lack of strong labor unions and support for predominantly female labor force, school lunch programs became increasingly privatized, eventually leading to brand-name fast foods and sodas as lunch options (Gaddis 2019).

“Nutritionism” and the rise of so-called Big Food are part of the major shifts in mainstream food production and culture occurring in general in this period. Thanks in part to the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, as well as movements for racial and gender equality, Americans had developed a cultural and political skepticism toward the status quo, a skepticism that extended to food. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as more and more highly processed food products flooded the market, questions of the safety, cleanliness, and health of the products began to emerge. A growing consumer movement began to question the power and strength of the food industry, whose profits were seemingly at the expense of consumers. Fear of food contamination, frustration with shoddy products and service, combined with the rise of media and advertising watchdog groups, created for many consumers an urgency to coalesce as a constituent group that could wield power through organizing and action. Minimum wage laborers, especially those employed in fast food, began to assert for their right to a living wage and decent working conditions (Povitz 2019; Orlick 2018).

The increasing public and media attention focused on the food industry in general led Congress to direct its attention to such matters. Progressive and entrepreneurial politicians responded by holding hearings and enacting legislation designed to protect consumers from unsafe, substandard, and potentially dangerous products. In the summer of 1969, for example, the US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, chaired by South Dakota senator George McGovern, turned from focusing on poverty and nutrition to holding hearings regarding the food industry and overall nutrition and health of all Americans.

Early environmentalism and an emerging counterculture contributed to Americans’ reevaluation of their heavily industrialized food supply. These sentiments entered the mainstream as Congress enacted the Clean Air and Water Acts, and in 1970 established the Environmental Protection Agency. The natural foods movement of the time brought distinct changes to American consumption habits. Beginning with the countercultural fringe Warren Belasco describes so well, many of these products and habits of consumption eventually made their way into the conventional food system, largely through co-optation by the mainstream food industry, and as Belasco (2007) argues, not without great compromise of the counterculture’s original ethos. By the early 1970s the natural foods movement was still suspect, but had moved to the mainstream enough to make it into the pages of national newspapers. By 1973 a nutritionist for the USDA Extension Service, hardly a fringe organization, advocated, “Ideally, natural foods are most desirable, if you can afford them. If you can’t, settle for the product with the fewer additives” (Dosti 1973).

With this historical context as a backdrop for understanding the cultural and political milieu, it is easy to understand how consumer groups, and much of the public, were primed to react to such an egregious attempt to literally take food from poor children’s mouths. While the Ketchup as a Vegetable matter was seemingly over in a matter of weeks, the legacy of the incident continued to live on. For Baby Boomers at least, it remained part of the lexicon, emblematic of government ineptitude, and more specifically, an attempt to cheat the poor and children of basic nutritional needs for the benefit of the wealthy. For many it became a symbol of the “let them eat cake” attitude of the Reagan years, although for others it was emblematic of the partisan wrangling common in Washington politics. To better understand why ketchup emerged as a symbol of Reaganomics, we first examine the physical nature of ketchup, then its cultural meanings.

Physical Properties, Cultural Meanings

We focus on Heinz brand of ketchup, given its dominance in the American market since the early twentieth century (Smith 1996). Still maintaining the lion’s share of the market in the 2020s, Heinz ketchup appears in snack bars, chain restaurants, and down-home diners. Even some fancier restaurants plant bottles of it on each table because people ask for it anyway. Heinz, the platonic ideal of ketchup, according to Malcolm Gladwell (2004), dominates because it is the perfect balance of sweet, salty, sour, and umami, a precisely calibrated product that is difficult to replicate.

In the mid-twentieth century Heinz ketchup ingredients listed on the label were as follows: “Made from fresh ripe tomatoes, spices, granulated cane sugar, bottled vinegar, onions, salt” (“Heinz Ketchup” 2015). Food manufacturers only had to list the ingredients in order of volume, so we do not know the specific amount or proportion of sugar, for example, in each bottle, only that cane sugar was the third most prevalent ingredient after tomatoes and spices. Food manufacturers were not required to list specific nutrition information until the 1990 labeling law. Heinz along with other ketchup makers began substituting high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for sugar in the 1980s.

Today Heinz ketchup labels list ingredients as: “Tomato concentrate made from red ripe tomatoes, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, salt, spice, onion powder, natural flavoring,” Further, the label, as required by law, contextualizes the micro- and macronutrients in a serving of ketchup. According to the information a one-tablespoon serving of ketchup contains twenty calories, zero grams of fat, 160 mg of sodium (a fairly hefty 7% of daily requirements), 4 grams of carbohydrate in the form of sugar (2% of daily requirements), and 2% of vitamins A and C for a day. Heinz contracts with farmers to grow the tomatoes, processes them into concentrate, and turns the concentrate into ketchup (“Heinz Cultivates” 2007). Since 2010 Heinz has also sold other ketchup products including “Simply Heinz,” containing no HFCS, an organic version, a low-sugar variety, as well as a sriracha-flavored ketchup.

A small irony of Ketchup as a Vegetable is that tomatoes are classified botanically as a fruit, not a vegetable. Even so, an 1893 federal court ruling defined tomatoes as a vegetable “for commercial purposes,” given that the “ordinary meaning” of vegetable was defined as a food “served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.” Which means that legally, fruits that are commonly served as dinner items can be called vegetables, at least when it comes to trade and commerce. This is why tomatoes, cucumbers, squashes, and peppers are all sold as vegetables, even though according to their botanical properties they are fruit (Nix v. Hedden 1893). Not everyone, however, regards tomatoes as a vegetable. Studies show that people categorize tomatoes (as fruit or vegetable) largely depending on their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, which influences how (and whether) they commonly prepare and consume them (Thompson et al. 2011).

“The whole idea is ludicrous,” Senator Heinz had pronounced from the Senate chamber, “ketchup is a condiment.” Why is the thought of categorizing ketchup as a vegetable so ridiculous? Because of its texture and thickness? Because ketchup contains sugar and salt that compromise its nutritional value? Because it is commonly consumed as an accoutrement to food and not considered a food item itself?

Ketchup is indeed a condiment, thickly textured with a concentrated flavor that functions as an accent to other foods. Rozin (2019: 86) reminds us, “Ketchup, along with its large and extended family of condiments, sauces, spices, and seasonings, has little to do with nourishment per se, but involves rather the pervasive practice of enhancing or altering or intensifying the flavor of food.” It would be difficult to consume ketchup alone in great amounts, say, an entire soup bowl of ketchup, because of its concentrated taste. As a condiment, it conflicts with our idea of what a vegetable as a component of a meal is supposed to be. This is so with regard to texture, concentration of flavor, the manner in which a vegetable is consumed, the usual quantity consumed at one sitting, and the nutrition we expect from it.

In Douglas’s “A+2b” meal formula, a condiment functions as an accent to “A”; it is not meant to be consumed independently as a “b,” that is, a major component of a meal. Usually the condiment flavor is too concentrated to function as a side vegetable alone (Douglas 1972; see also Mintz and Schlettwein-Gsell 2001). We are not comfortable with, for example, ordering a plate of just a condiment, say ketchup or mustard, at a restaurant—that would defy standard notions of a meal as well as the understood function of a condiment. A condiment such as ketchup may contain similar ingredients and be close in texture to a pureed soup, which is of course perfectly acceptable to order alone, but “condiment,” as we know, indicates a specific set of physical properties, uses, and psychological meanings (Thomas 1996). This helps explain why the senators’ press conference lunch—tiny little burgers with ketchup and French fries on the side, supposedly functioning as a vegetable—was such a symbolically powerful performance of the administration’s proposed cuts to school lunch.

We are also not terribly comfortable admitting that French fries are one of the most commonly consumed “vegetables,” especially by children, even infants as young as nine months. While potatoes are quite nourishing, containing vitamins C and B-6, calcium, protein, and fiber, when processed into French fries or potato chips—which is how Americans consume 70 percent of their potatoes—the excess salt and fat diminish the potato’s overall nutritional profile. Tomatoes are also nutritionally beneficial, but similarly, 77 percent of the tomatoes Americans consume are processed into sauce or ketchup, both of which are most often prepared with added salt and sugar. USDA data indicates that 90 percent of Americans are not consuming an adequate number of vegetables daily, and half of what vegetables they do consume are potatoes and tomatoes, mostly in the form of French fries, chips, and ketchup (Ferdman 2015). While Americans love their French fries and ketchup, few consider them “healthy vegetables,” in the same category as, for example, green beans or squash. Thus to consider fries and ketchup “the vegetables” in children’s school lunches creates strong internal dissonance.

In 1981 America ketchup was predominantly identified as a ubiquitous and much-loved condiment, an accompaniment to nationally recognized and familiar foods especially loved by children, but not a stand-alone vegetable. The thought of feeding children, especially low-income children, ketchup as a vegetable (even if this was not the direct intention or outcome of the proposal) was read as a bizarre punitive act straight out of a Dickens novel and thus damning to the Reagan administration. Perhaps the reason we remember “ketchup as a vegetable” has less to do with Reagan and his administration’s intention, and more to do with its manifestation as a very powerful lodestone of criticism. A close reading of the original recommendation gives the impression that the intention was to count one tablespoon of “tomato paste,” reconstituted in a dish such as pasta with tomato sauce, as a vegetable. This substitution seems logical and nutritionally sound. However, that change, combined with the “condiments such as pickle relish as a vegetable” recommendation, allows for plausible interpretation as potentially applying to ketchup as well. The “tomato paste” recommendation was deliberately exaggerated, though not without some basis, because of a groundswell of dissatisfaction with so many other policies, including slashing domestic spending for social programs, as well as the general directive to change, and in doing so diminish, nutrition and food programs for many who needed them the most.

It is logical, however, to wonder why the outcry was so focused on ketchup as a vegetable when there were so many other sins to be singled out in the 1981 school lunch recommendations. Given the United States’ long focus on beef as culturally and nutritionally significant, why no similar outrage, for example, over the idea of shrinking portions of beef patties, themselves composed with a substantial percentage of nonmeat filler? Yet the meat substitutes got only minimal comment from nutrition and child advocacy groups or the popular press. While it is impossible to prove a counterfactual, it may be in part because the trend of reducing protein portions and employing synthetic substitutes had been occurring over the past decade, as the above discussion indicates. The public may not have loved the concept of a combined patty of soy and beef, but was more familiar with it and thus perhaps more inured to the idea, especially as compared with counting ketchup as a vegetable. Moreover, that school lunch was largely consumed by lower-income children, including children of color, no doubt made it easier to downplay the consequences of the budget cuts that reduced the amount of beef.

Similarly, other recommendations issued at the same time—cookies and pie for breakfast, replacing low-fat milk with whole milk just as childhood obesity levels were beginning to climb—in retrospect seem at least as bad if not worse than tomato paste counting as a vegetable. The proposal to count cookies and donuts as bread portions seems the most egregious recommendation, yet it received minimal attention at the time. This is perhaps because in the early 1980s Americans had not yet experienced the sharp increases in sugar intake through growing soda consumption, and the accompanying obesity rates and subsequent health problems that were realized in the 2000s. Also, of course, the spotlight was squarely turned on Ketchup as a Vegetable, against which everything else fell into the background. Given ketchup’s iconic nature, its firm tradition as a condiment accompanying American fast food, and its dearth of nutrients, “ketchup as a vegetable,” a recommendation not even specifically cited, wrested the spotlight from the other numerous recommendations—some progressive, some clearly regressive with regard to nutrition, others more neutral—and became the symbol of an administration gone wrong.

It is interesting to analyze the entire set of 1981 recommendations with almost forty years of perspective. Today, the meat substitutes outlined in the 1981 school lunch proposals make a great deal of sense and were in fact approved in the 1990s (1995 nuts and nut butters, and 1998 tofu). Another of the proposals, counting protein sources from a variety of dishes instead of requiring that there be one larger serving of protein, also makes sense, in that it dramatically expands the notion of an “acceptable meal.” So, for example, school cafeterias could serve a chicken barley soup with grains, veggies, and a small portion of chicken, but milk or some cheese served separately could factor into the protein requirement.

There are further interesting postscripts to this story. First, in 1998, seventeen years after the ketchup incident, salsa, by all accounts a more nutritious condiment but a condiment nevertheless, was approved as a vegetable for school lunch. Government officials, understandably nervous about the announcement, were defensive in their statements on the subject. “Ketchup is really mostly sugar and vinegar,” said one Agriculture Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is not the same because…(salsa) is essentially a vegetable salad” (“USDA Calls Salsa A Vegetable.” 1998). Second, in 2011 Ketchup as a Vegetable returned to the media spotlight as Congress sought to block the Obama administration’s attempt to increase the amount of tomato paste that could count as a “vegetable,” from two tablespoons to half a cup. Frozen pizza makers, who supply school districts with millions of pizzas per year, balked at the thought, since the increased amount would exclude their product from meeting the new nutrition standards. The “pizza as a vegetable” controversy ensued. Pizza lobbyists won (Nestle 2011).

School lunch is still a fraught political and economic battleground for government, nutrition advocates, and food product manufacturers, as the past decade has witnessed. In 2018 the Trump administration sought to roll back the improved nutrition and food requirements implemented in the Obama-era Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010, legislation which had updated and improved nutritional requirements for school lunches. In 2020 the federal court blocked the Trump rollback, but presumably the battle will continue, as academics, the public health community, farm bill activists, and hunger and nutrition organizations have identified school lunch as an entity still in need of reform (Crawford 2020). What will undoubtedly continue is that ketchup will maintain its place in school lunchrooms.

Acknowledgments

Sincere thanks go to Annabelle Gary, Beth Forrest, Deirdre Murphy, Andrew Donnelly, and two anonymous reviewers, whose comments improved the work considerably.

Notes

1.

Critics of supply-side economics argue that it leads to growing deficits, increased income inequality, and stalled economic growth.

2.

The Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1980, signed by President Carter, also had provisions to reduce the amount of school lunch reimbursement by two cents per meal, but it did not call for such steep budget cuts nor did it reassign allocation as block grants.

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