Photo by Aaron Landry

Photo by Aaron Landry

More than two dozen California school districts are serving healthier versions of one of the most maligned staples of many school lunch programs—pizza.

And the pizza is being delivered by Domino’s, one of the largest pizza chains in the country.

In place of reheated frozen pizza, schools are serving what Domino’s calls its Smart Slice, which uses whole grain flour in its crust, mozzarella cheese with half the fat of a typical pizza, and less salt. Local franchises make the pizzas each day and deliver them to the schools.

The Smart Slice comes in response to a new federal law—the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in December 2010—which requires more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and less saturated fat and salt in school meals.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is now reviewing more than 131,000 comments made on the proposed guidelines, is expected to issue final regulations by Dec. 13. The new rules will take effect in the 2012–13 school year.

But many districts are trying to get a jump-start on the law. Nationwide, Domino’s nutritionally upgraded pizza is now in about 300 school districts in 31 states.

It took Domino’s about nine months to create the new pizza, which it first offered to 120 districts nationwide in 2010. The trick was in making it taste good, said Steve Clough, director of Domino’s school lunch program. The company’s chefs had to add mozzarella flavoring to the cheese and spice up the tomato sauce. The crust is a blend of white and whole-wheat flour. The cost of the new ingredients is about 10% higher than regular pizza, he said. But Clough said the company expects costs to go down as demand increases.

Downey Unified School District in Los Angeles County began offering the new pizza last year, according to Nadine Silva, the district’s operations coordinator. Some students noticed that the sauce tasted different and some wanted more cheese, she said. But she is still selling the same number of pizzas as before.

“Most of the students didn’t even notice that there was a difference,” she added.

In response to an EdSource request, Domino’s released the names of only three of the 27 districts that are participating in California because the company said it didn’t want its competitors to know which districts had signed up for their Smart Slices. The districts include Downey, Roseville City near Sacramento, and Banning Unified in Riverside County.

In fact, there is hot competition among some pizza companies to fill this federally mandated nutritional niche. Big Daddy’s Pizza, for example, makes a frozen pizza with whole-grain flour and less fat that some California districts are serving to their school lunch crowd. And Domino’s Smart Slice beat out Papa John’s in Capistrano Unified.

But some critics say that just meeting the new USDA guidelines, as Domino’s Smart Slice appears to be doing, is not necessarily a good measure of a food’s nutritional value.

“The guidelines are out of step with science due to the influence of the meat and dairy industries,” says Michele Simon, a public health attorney from Northern California and author of Appetite for Profit: How the food industry undermines our health and how to fight back.

“Food can meet the guidelines, but common sense will tell you that eating Domino’s pizza everyday is not good for you,” Simon said.

Jean Daniel, a spokesperson for the USDA, said the proposed guidelines very closely follow the recommendations of a 2009 Institute of Medicine panel for new nutritional requirements for school meal programs.

Simon is also on the steering committee of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which objects to the common practice of schools contracting with fast-food chains to provide lunches or even allowing them to open on-campus outlets.

“They want to get their brand in front of the kids’ eyes, get them when they are a young, captive audience,” she said.

Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said pizza companies have been making special pizzas for a decade to meet whatever federal school lunch requirements are in effect at the time.

“It’s very confusing to kids,” he said. “They don’t know the difference between the pizza they get at school and the franchise down the street.”

Schools, he said, should be a safe, marketing-free zone “especially for products that have a parallel product sold off campus that can contribute to obesity.”

Some districts have responded to the push for healthier school lunches by offering options such as stir-fry vegetables in Yuba City, salad bars in San Francisco, and hummus with whole-wheat pita in Los Angeles.

But despite such innovations, food service managers are generally reluctant to let go of pizza because of its popularity with kids.

“There’s nothing wrong with pizza if it’s eaten in moderation,” said Dawn Davey, director of food and nutrition services for Capistrano. She serves students a meal consisting of just one slice, plus fruit, vegetables, and milk.

The district strives to provide choices that are healthy but also appealing to kids, Davey said. “We don’t want them sitting in class hungry because they threw their lunch away.”

Domino’s Clough said kids often reject healthier lunch products because they are unfamiliar, which defeats the purpose of serving them in the first place.

“It’s not nutritious if kids don’t eat it,” he said.

Want to find out more about the proposed school lunch nutrition guidelines?  Read details in the Federal Register here.

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