What Domino’s Pizza in the Cafeteria Says About the State of School Food Reform

Advocates say reformulated junk foods confuse children, but when margins are slim, administrators rely on the income.



As an advocate, writer, and school food commentator (and Civil Eats contributor), Bettina Elias Siegel has spent the last eight years working on improving the quality of food served in public schools across the country.

But her activism started with the desire to change the food her children were being served at schools in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). So when she found out in late 2017 that HISD had hired Betti Wiggins, the visionary who had transformed Detroit’s school food program from one dependent on deep-fried, processed foods to one filled with fresh produce from local farms, she thought her work in the district was done.

“I felt like, ‘We’re in good hands now, I don’t have to pay attention,’” Siegel said.

Which is why she was shocked to hear that, in July, Wiggins signed an $8 million contract with Domino’s to sell its Smart Slice pizza in Houston’s middle and high schools. (The contract is set for one year and renewable for four.)

After Siegel wrote about the contract on her blog, The Lunch Tray, in early August, the Houston Chronicle picked up the piece (with a few small updates), sparking controversy both within the district and in larger circles of concerned parents and reformers.

“There are certain foods I don’t think we should be serving in schools. I don’t serve hot dogs and corn dogs; I think that’s carnival food,” Wiggins had said in a Civil Eats interview in 2015. But in 2018, she told Siegel she had to have a source of pizza on the HISD a la carte line because kids demand it, and that she is expected to run a business that doesn’t end up needing money from the district at the end of the year.

“This is a delicate balance act that we play,” she told Siegel. “I’ve got to find a way to get incremental income. That’s a shame to say.”

The big question hovering around the discussion was clear: If an esteemed advocate like Wiggins feels the need to feed students Domino’s in order to make her budget work, what does that say about the state of school food reform in 2018?

The Problem With Smart Snacks

In December 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act into law. Shaped by first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to curb childhood obesity, the bill gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to set nutrition standards for all food sold in schools. The new standards called for more whole grains, less sodium, and more fresh fruit and vegetables, among other things. The law was significant because the standards applied not only to the federally reimbursable meal line but also to what school administrators call the “a la carte” line, in which students can buy individual meal items and snacks including packaged junk foods like potato chips.

In response to the Act, food companies rushed to reformulate their products to meet the Smart Snacks standards. Frito-Lay debuted a Smart Snack version of its Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with less fat and salt and more whole grains than the original. And Domino’s created Smart Slice, pizza made with 1/3 less salt, reduced-fat cheese, and 51 percent Ultragrain White Whole Wheat Flour. Pop-Tarts, Doritos, and Rice Krispies Treats also all come in Smart Snack variations sold in schools.

While these foods technically meet the federal nutrition standards, many experts still argue they’re nowhere near “healthy.” Additionally, advocates say getting kids hooked on big processed food brands is an even bigger issue than the quantity of salt and sugar.

“If your goal is to get kids started on a lifetime of healthy food choices, this is indeed a problem in two ways: It encourages kids to eat fast food, and it points out the absurdity of school nutrition standards, which can be so easily gamed,” said renowned author and nutrition and food studies professor Marion Nestle.

“What’s problematic is you add that layer of branding that’s particularly appealing to children … and the kids are not told this is not the same Domino’s pizza [they’re used to], so to them, it just looks like the school is serving them Domino’s. That sends a very troubling message—that this is okay to eat for lunch,” Siegel said. “We’re undermining the spirit of the Act, which was in part to educate children about what healthy food looks like.”

Catering to Cafeteria Economics

In a statement provided to Civil Eats, Wiggins explained that schools offer pizza, chips, and other a la carte menu items to middle and high school students because they understand that not all students opt to eat what is available on the cafeteria line. “Offering these varied options, many that are recognizable brands, allows students who traditionally pass on the standard menu to have access to a healthier version of their favorite snacks,” Wiggins said in the statement.

Additionally, she said, there’s a financial component. “Money collected from a la carte sales stays in Nutrition Services, providing the department with the funding needed to continue developing healthy, nutritious options for our students,” she explained.

That distinction is key, because most districts don’t allocate significant funding from what is called the “general fund” to school food programs. That means food service departments usually need to make their own money beyond what the USDA reimburses, explained school food reformer Ann Cooper, who is currently the food service director at Boulder Valley School District and runs the Chef Ann Foundation and a national consulting company devoted to school food reform.

“There’s no other department in a school district where they’re not supported from the general fund,” she said, offering a comparison: While buses aren’t “necessary” in the same way that teachers or textbooks are when it comes to educating children, many districts allocate millions of dollars to busing because ensuring children get to school each day is prioritized. “You could make a case that you can’t educate kids unless you get them to the school,” she said. “And I will make a case that you can’t educate kids that are malnourished or hungry—they can’t learn, they can’t think.”

Given the lack of money allocated from district funds and low federal reimbursement rates, those actually working with school food budgets are not surprised when compromises are made.

“There’s an expectation that the school food system is run as a business,” added Cecily Upton, the co-founder of FoodCorps, an organization that works on both nutrition education and school food programs across the country. “It’s the only part of the school system set up like a business and a place where districts are expected to make a profit. [Food service directors] are strategizing about how can they do a little better in one place and where can they make sacrifices to make those changes possible.”

Part of that business is getting students to actually eat the food, said Bertrand Weber, who has presided over a rapid transformation of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) food program, installing salad bars, switching to scratch cooking, and partnering with local farms. School food metrics are often measured in “participation,” and this gives companies like Domino’s a leg up when it comes to bids, since the company can use the fact that kids want to eat Domino’s pizza as a selling point. The evidence is front and center on the product’s homepage: “80 percent of our customers report increased participation with Domino’s Smart Slice.”

Weber goes as far as saying he sees school food programs as competing with local fast food chains. “The most expensive thing in a restaurant is an empty seat, and the most expensive thing in a school environment is a student not eating our food, because our overhead remains the same,” he said.

The Challenge of Reform

In Minneapolis, however, Weber has been able to successfully eliminate selling processed foods made by outside vendors in schools for two reasons.

First, he said, he benefits from the fact that 60 percent of the district qualifies for free or reduced-price meals. This allows him to take advantage of more federal and state programs and subsidies compared to wealthier districts.

Second, he’s cut costs primarily by switching to scratch cooking, since unprocessed ingredients are much cheaper, even after considering the higher cost of labor.

Scratch cooking is at the base of Cooper’s reforms, too. She cut food costs by switching to buying whole foods and applied a smart solution to the associated higher labor costs: centralized production. “If you’re trying to cook in every school, payroll costs are high,” she said. In Boulder, where the district includes more than 50 schools, she transitioned to having meals prepared and cooked in just three kitchens. She’s currently working with the district to build a separate facility that will further consolidate the cooking to one central location.

Weber, on the other hand, has worked with MPS to allocate significant capital into building kitchens in schools that didn’t have them. He has gone from zero kitchens five years ago to 36 today, and he expects to have 48 by next year. “I personally was successful in elevating the importance of quality food and a quality eating environment with the school board and community,” he said.

In communities where residents or leadership do not see healthy cooking and from-scratch food as priorities, that same effort might hit a brick wall. Indeed, when Siegel initially heard parents in Houston were in an uproar over the Domino’s contract, she thought it was for the same reasons she was, she said. But in fact, they were concerned that $8 million was going to food services when the district needed more money for teachers and other programs.

Still, the success of programs like Brigaid and Wellness in the Schools, in which chefs revamp school food programs in exchange for a fee, speaks to the idea that when political and community will exist, schools can move money around to pay for better food. (Both programs do, however, support their work through outside fundraising as well—and cut costs through scratch cooking with whole foods.)

“I love what they’re doing, but there’s always going to be a limited number of those programs compared to the number of school districts in this country,” Siegel said. “They still feel like stopgap measures that create this patchwork of haves and have-nots.”

Which speaks to what these nitty-gritty conversations about budgeting and compromise say about the state of school food today: Despite Michelle Obama’s reforms, the people doing the work say there is still a long way to go, not only to secure adequate resources, but also to convince governments and districts that healthy food should be an educational priority—a preliminary step that ultimately leads the way toward securing resources for healthy school food.

“We need to reframe the thinking. School food should be considered just as important as English, math, and science. The kids can’t learn if they’re not well-fed,” Cooper said. “If we don’t change the systems, we’re going to continuously see school food directors forced into serving food they’d rather not or cutting deals they’d rather not because they don’t have the money they need.”

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  1. Adam Russo
    Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
    This is rubbish. Bertrand and Ann Cooper both sell pizza too but no mention? Is their pizza nutritionally superior or less offensive somehow? Maybe this has less to do with School Food Reform and more to do with the preferences of American diners.

    And the success of Brigaid? They cost their District money every year in consulting fees and still lose money- how are we quantifying success?
    • Lisa Held
      Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
      Hi Adam,

      Thanks for the feedback. I did talk to Bertrand about selling pizza and it was a whole other conversation that unfortunately didn't make it into the piece. He does sell it, but made from scratch in the schools with whole food ingredients. The issue he was speaking to was more about the branding (which he does not allow have in his district schools), unlike others who commented more on the straight nutrition facts related to pizza (like Marion Nestle).

      While I don't know whether or not Brigaid "still loses money" as you suggest, the organization does charge districts a fee for consulting, although it is able to cut food costs at the same time, so we'd have to see specific numbers to see whether or not it ends up costing the schools in the long run (and almost a dozen people I talked to in this profession over the past few months confirmed that scratch cooking can cut food costs enough that the higher cost of labor is not a problem).

      It looks like you might work as a school food service director, yourself? If so, it would be really valuable if you weighed in on how you manage costs and approach the question of contracts with companies like Frito-Lay and Domino's in your own work. The more perspectives on the issues, the better.
    • Adam Russo
      Thursday, October 11th, 2018
      No specifics needed, they lose money.. The New Yorker, 8/8/18- "In New London, two years in, Giusti says that the district is close to breaking even."

      The dozen people you talked to were right- things cost less when you buy raw goods and process them yourself but the average School Division (3,500 kids) doesn't necessarily have the economies of scale to actualize those savings or a kitchen to even cook in if they could. We are big and scratch cook/bake daily so it works for us but there are real challenges associated with undertaking such a venture.

      We manage costs through sound business practices and analytics. We are in the meal business with very little emphasis put towards a la carte sales. Presently we purchase three varieties of Smart Snack compliant Frito-Lay chips with most secondary schools menu'ing one or two. I would not sell Domino's, not because it is branded but because I do not think it is very tasty. When we buy things it goes through a simple calculus-
      1. Yummy ?
      2. In our Break even range?
      3. Impact on service speed?
      4. Impact on physical workload?

      All that said my original response was basically- pizza is pizza, putting Domino's on the menu is hardly an indictment on the state of School Food reform and that still holds true. Bertrand's pizza is acceptable because it is scratch made and Ann/mine is okay because it isn't branded? I just find the line in the sand to be a little silly and I find touting the successes of these other programs (who maybe aren't successful) to be misleading and potentially damaging.
  2. Sergio Lira
    Wednesday, October 10th, 2018
    I am the HISD trustee who brought this Dominoes Pizza exorbitant contract into question. Mrs. Siegel did an excellent job in reporting how the name Smart Pizza entices students to purchase and that the pizzas do not meet the food and nutritional value as outline by state standards. They are several food vendors who are violating state law and yet, there are still selling their unhealthy food items at schools. I hope Mrs. Siegel or others visit these schools and do a follow up story.
    • Friday, October 12th, 2018
      Hi all --

      Seeing these comments, I feel the need to chime in:

      First, Dr. Lira -- I just wanted to correct one thing you said above: Domino's Smart Slice pizza -- unlike all the other junk food that is sold daily on many Houston ISD campuses -- actually does meet federal nutrition regulations. (My objections to it are below.)

      But it's important to note that Betti Wiggins has said she feels she must sell the Domino's Smart Slice in part to compete with all of that *illegal junk food fundraising. So I do hope the HISD school board will finally crack down on these sales, which are in flagrant violation of federal and state regulations. And I remain grateful to you, Dr. Lira, for your obvious concern for the health and well-being of Houston ISD students!

      And Adam Russo:

      Speaking for myself, this is not some case of food snobbery (i.e., "scratch cooked" magically turns a pizza into something "less offensive.") This is entirely about BRANDING.

      Everyone well understands that it's the *brand that makes Domino's Smart Slice so appealing to kids. That claim is all over their marketing materials and it was echoed by Betti Wiggins herself when I interviewed her in August.

      Yet when you bring a brand associated with unhealthy (by which I mean, non-NSLP-compliant) food into a school lunchroom, you are implicitly teaching children that the unhealthy version is just fine to eat on a regular basis. Because whether it's Smart Snacks-compliant Cheetos, Doritos, Rice Krispies Treats, or Domino's, no one ever lets kids in on the secret that these tweaked versions are (marginally) healthier. That would defeat the whole appeal of such products.

      Put another way, if Domino's wanted to sell an off-label pizza for use in schools, that would be just fine with me. But they never will, because it's all about that enticing junk food trademark.