Earlier this week, I learned from a number of alarmed Houston parents that our district’s Nutrition Services department is entering into a four-year, $8 million contract to bring Domino’s “Smart Slice” pizza to our school cafeterias.
Even more distressing: the contract was arranged by our nutrition services director, Betti Wiggins, who’s hailed nationally as a school food visionary, and who expressly promised to rid Houston’s schools of just this sort of “carnival food.” From a local Houston news story reporting on Wiggins’s arrival last fall:
“Pizza and hot dogs and corn dogs — that’s carnival food,” said Betti Wiggins, HISD Officer of Nutrition Services. “Those are foods that we shouldn’t be talking about to represent a good diet that’s nutritious to our kids.”
Domino’s created Smart Slice specifically to capitalize on the school food market, by tweaking its standard pizza’s ingredients to comply with school nutrition standards. Since introducing it in 2011, the company has aggressively promoted Smart Slice to schools as a sure-fire way to boost revenue, claiming that “80% of districts report increased participation with Smart Slice.” As of 2016, Domino’s was selling the pizza to more than 6,000 districts in 47 states, figures I’m guessing are significantly higher today.
But central to the success of Smart Slice is that it looks to students just like the real thing — especially since it’s served to kids in Domino’s-branded cardboard boxes or printed paper sleeves, and/or near Domino’s-branded signage:
This brand recognition is critical to Smart Slice’s success. In a Domino’s promotional video for Smart Slice, one satisfied school food director says of her students, “I think they’re just excited to have a brand name, because we market it as, ‘It’s Domino’s day.’” A Smart Slice brochure quotes a school food director saying, “Our students request Domino’s Smart Slice pizza by the brand!” And the company sponsors a “Smart Rewards” program in which districts can redeem points for yet more Domino’s-branded items, like hats and aprons for school food workers, because, in the words of another nutrition director in the promotional video, “Just the name Domino’s sells the product.”
And therein lies the problem.
Smart Slice is what’s known as “copycat” product: a food that’s been tweaked to meet school “Smart Snacks” nutritional standards, but using the same brand name and trade dress of its junk-food counterpart:
Copycat products are troubling for three reasons. First, although they’re (somewhat) “better-for-you” than their restaurant or supermarket counterparts, these products only reinforce kids’ love of hyper-palatable, highly-processed food. Second, they’re so intrinsically appealing that their mere presence in the cafeteria makes healthier items an even harder sell. (How many kids will choose a salad that’s offered next to slices of Domino’s?) But worst of all: children have no clue that copycat food is slightly more nutritious, so each time they see it in their schools — a place of learning — they receive an implicit message that branded fast food and junk food are a normal part of one’s daily or weekly diet.
When I first learned of the Domino’s contract, I felt sucker-punched — but I also felt reluctant to write about it. As many of you know, I’ve been one of Wiggins’s most vocal champions: On this blog, I trumpeted her arrival to Houston parents (“Houston Parents, Rejoice: Betti Wiggins Is Coming to Houston ISD!” and “A Happy Day in Houston ISD“) and last year I even penned a Houston Chronicle op-ed to garner wider public support her efforts. And on a personal level, I very much like “Miss Betti” (as she’s known by all), which makes me especially uncomfortable criticizing her publicly. But I finally had to acknowledge to myself that if Aramark, our former food service management company, had signed this same Domino’s contract, I’d be the first one to call them out — loudly. So I told Wiggins yesterday that I was writing this post, and we spoke on the phone early this morning.
Here’s what I learned. According to Wiggins, Domino’s pizza will not be offered or sold in any elementary school, nor will it be included in the reimbursable school meal at any grade level — except for use as an “emergency meal” in schools dealing with a power outage or other temporary logistical issues. It will, however, be available on a daily basis to all middle and high school students on their cafeteria’s “a la carte” line. And while the contract has been described as a “four-year” deal, Wiggins says it’s actually a one-year contract with options to renew for the following three years.
But why is Wiggins teaming up with Domino’s in the first place? “We’ve got to have a source of pizza,” she told me, “because our kids are going to ask for it in our a la carte line.” While Wiggins would prefer to entice students with a district-made pizza, she says it couldn’t include enough cheese to please students while also meeting the Smart Snacks standards. (She says that Domino’s gets over this hurdle by using “artificial cheese.”**) But at a different point in our conversation, she also acknowledged the power of the Domino’s name to drive sales. “Branding,” she said with a sigh. “I don’t know how to defeat it. They [students] see a box with a name on it, that’s where they’re going.”
And why is Wiggins offering kids daily a la carte pizza (regardless of who makes it), given her stated opposition to “carnival food?” The answer, predictably, is money. “I still run a business,” Wiggins said. “And I don’t want to have to at the end of the year look to the [district’s] general fund and say ‘I’m $5 million short, please pay my bills.’” So Wiggins says she sees the partnership with Domino’s as an unfortunate necessity. “This is a delicate balance act that we play,” she said, “and I’m not selling candy bars. But I’ve got to find a way to get incremental income. That’s a shame to say.”
But for whatever it’s worth, I should also mention that in the same Domino’s promotional video cited above, I was quite surprised to see that one of the school nutrition directors extolling Smart Slice on camera is Wiggins herself, in an interview filmed when she was still working in Detroit. (She appears briefly at the 6:12 mark.)
There’s no doubt that Wiggins has made a lot of positive changes in Houston just in her first 14 months on the job. She says she’s dramatically increased our school supper participation, going from serving an average of 6,000 meals a week to 90,000. That’s a meaningful statistic in a district with over 80 percent of students living near or below the poverty line, and with many families still suffering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey last August. She’s also succeeded in getting Community Eligibility Provision certification for the entire district, meaning meals are now free for all students, regardless of income level.
Wiggins has also made a variety of nutritional improvements, including placing a salad bar in every one of Houston’s elementary schools, as of this coming school year. She also says she’s working to get more sliced fruits into meals for younger grade levels (where kids often throw away whole fruits that are too challenging to eat) and to bring more nutrition education into schools, including a facsimile of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for schools that don’t qualify because they’re not in high poverty areas.
And Wiggins did express a general discomfort with her overall reliance on a la carte sales, which also includes ice cream that’s available to all children, including those in elementary school, as well as a variety of chips and other snacks at all grade levels. All told, Wiggins says she derives about $9 million a year from these sales. “I want to get rid of Smart Snacks, period. I’ve just got to figure out a way to not sell a la carte. But $9 million — I can’t pooh pooh that.”
If Congress were willing to adequately fund school food, no district would need to sell a la carte snacks to scrape by. If Houston ISD wasn’t in such a financial mess right now (and if the majority of our school board prioritized student nutrition, something that’s never been true for as long as I’ve lived here), the district could use its general fund to close the gap in Wiggins’s budget. If Houston principals would stop turning a blind eye to rampant violations of state and federal school food fundraising regulations, and if Houston PTAs would stop sacrificing student health to raise money, Wiggins wouldn’t feel she has to compete with junk food sold at fundraising tables and in many school stores.
Those are all real challenges, and I’m very sympathetic to them. In the end, though, I still regard the Domino’s move as a serious misstep, and I sincerely hope Wiggins will wean her department’s budget off of Smart Slice sales long before the contract expires.
But when I told Wiggins how I was going to come out on the issue in this post, she was only supportive. “I’m a big girl,” she told me, “and you have to do your job, just like I have to do mine.”
** EDITED 8/2/18 at 7:45pm CST: I just verified on the Domino’s website that the product uses 100% low-fat mozzarella cheese. I suspect Wiggins was just using a sort of verbal shorthand in our discussion.
** Here’s an important follow-up to this post: “That Domino’s Smart Slice Post: The Ending I Wish I’d Written”
*** And here’s how Houston ISD officials blatantly lied about this contract before a vote was taken by our school board.
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