Pizza

For the last several months, I’ve traveled around the US, visiting schools and observing their food service programs. This is a new arena for me, so I’m keeping my eyes and ears open to learn as much as I can about the challenges of school food service programs.

My favorite part of school visits is always the same: meeting students. From kindergarten to high school, they always have something to say about what they do and don’t like to eat — and their comments are always reasonable.

The one topic that always comes up? Pizza.

If you ever ate school lunch as a kid, you probably remember Pizza Fridays.  The trend lives on, but many of the students don’t eagerly await it anymore. They’re tired of eating the same thing week after week, especially when it tastes wildly different from the pizza they have become accustomed to eating at home or in restaurants.

Why does the pizza taste so different? Well, to adhere to the USDA nutritional guidelines, significant adjustments must be made to the standard recipe.  The most noticeable and unpleasant change is the use of low-fat cheese. Cheese that’s lower in fat content doesn’t melt as well as full-fat cheese, and it quickly becomes a plastic-like texture (if it doesn’t burn first) when it ends up on the pizza served on school lunch trays.

But, more than taste, the real issue is that we’re still leaning on pizza as the anchor of the weekly school lunch menu. Instead of spending time taking foods that are traditionally liked by kids and tweaking them into “healthier,” less desirable versions, we should be looking to develop new kid-friendly recipes that are not only nutritious, but expose students to new food experiences.

We can do better than serving the same lackluster options week in and week out. And we can teach our students healthy, balanced eating habits in the process. If Meatless Mondays can take off, imagine the alternatives for Pizza Fridays.