During Ronald Reagan’s terms as president, I was in junior high and then high school. At some point during that time he became a running joke during lunch period. When French fries were served, or anything else involving ketchup, we’d say “Good thing Ronald Reagan says ketchup is a vegetable.” Did President Ronald Reagan really declare ketchup a vegetable during his term?
The process of ketchup becoming a vegetable actually began before Reagan entered office. There had been big changes to the funding of school lunch programs and congress had cut one billion dollars from child nutrition funding . Some schools lunches were already becoming privatized. In order to meet nutrition guidelines but save money, nutritionists as the Department of Agriculture began to redefine or recategorized the nutritional status of certain foods. Not all of these suggestions seemed outrageous. For example, pasta was included in the ‘bread’ category. But the idea that condiments like pickle relish and ketchup were vegetables was met with derision and laughter.
There is not one official government position on such things as “ketchup is a vegetable.” Basically, different agencies might define a certain food a certain way for their own purposes. In this case, the USDA was proposing these changes as part of its subsidized school lunch program, where school lunch programs could receive funds for each lunch they served, as long as they met nutritional standards. After the cuts were made to child nutrition funding, the USDA was mandated to change the standards in a way that would enable school lunch programs to save money while still meeting nutrition needs.
Whatever the reasoning behind these dubious efforts, Ronald Reagon had nothing to do with them, and nor did his predecessor Jimmy Carter. The idea that any President would push for ketchup to be called a vegetable seems a bit out there, doesn’t it? So, why did so many people believe it to the point that it began to be called ketchupgate?
The school lunch changes were happening during a severe economic depression. In fact, during the 1982 recession, unemployment reaches its highest rate since the Great Depression. Reagon had been shot, recovered, and emerged with new support. This enabled him to push through a budget bill that resulted in 400,000 people losing their welfare benefits, 279,000 more having their benefits reduced, and a million people losing their food stamps. Domestic spending was cut by 39 billion dollars.
Coupled with the recession, this hit the working class hard. Reagon was seen as uncaring and even callous toward the poor, and the Democrats, even after grudgingly allowing his bill to pass, lashed out. Their favorite gaff was ketchup being reclassified a vegetable to save money on school lunches. The whole proposal was soon withdrawn, and the USDA chose instead “offer vs. serve.” Students had to be offerred all five of the required components of a school lunch, one serving meat, milk, and bread, and two servings of fruit or vegetables. But, students could refuse two of the components.
You can read more about the history of school lunches and of “lunch” in general in Lunch: A History by Megan Elias, and more about Ronald Reagan’s presidency in Ronald Reagan: The American Presidents Series: The 40th President, 1981-1989.
See also Where did Ketchup Come From?.