With childhood obesity on the rise, the US Department of Agriculture began raising nutrition standards for school food in 2012. The assumption was that fast foods and snacks were the culprits, and that the revised standards would convince schools to drop fast foods from school lunches and nutrition breaks. But leave it to the enterprising fast food industry to keep their products alive in schools. A classic example is Domino’s Pizza.
The Slice that Undercut the USDA
To circumvent the USDA’s latest nutrition guidelines, Domino’s started delivering a pizza called Smart Slice to more than 3,000 lunchrooms in 38 states. Smart Slice has 1/3 less fat in the pepperoni, 1/3 less salt in the sauce, and half the cheese fat than its regular pizza—so it meets USDA’s latest standards. The USDA also insisted that at least half the grains in pizza be whole grains (which generally provide more fiber and other nutrients than refined white flour). Domino’s met this head on with white, whole-wheat flour called Ultragrain, which makes up 51 percent of the flour in its crusts.
A Pie with a Pitch
The new “healthier” pizza also came with a hefty marketing pitch for the Domino’s brand. The company delivers its pizzas directly to schools. So their trucks, employee uniforms, insulated boxes and lunch-line placards ubiquitously brand the company’s red-and-blue logo into young impressionable student minds. Nutritionists fear this on-campus branding primes students to head for Domino’s after school or on weekends to devour its regular non-USDA pizza (Domino’s says it has no plans to sell the Smart Slice in shops).
Bar the Brand
The problem isn’t limited to Domino’s or even pizza. As chip, cereal and snack manufacturers begin altering their recipes for school lunches and nutrition breaks, new “school healthy” products will be created, sold and branded. To combat this trend, the Public Health Advocacy Institute, a consumer group, has asked the Department of Agriculture to bar any branding of those products if they are not also widely available outside schools. Case in point: Chicago’s public schools already refuse to serve reformulated products to their 400,000 students, insisting that the brands frustrate efforts to teach students better eating habits. Offering an olive branch to health advocate, a Domino’s spokesman noted, “Some schools like the branding because brands drive sales,” but added that Domino’s is prepared to drop its logo on request.