Although summer's almost here and kids are ready to put away the books, pizzeria chains are betting that education, along with a bite of a flavorful pizza, can turn young people into lifelong learners and, just as importantly for those chains, into lifelong pizza lovers.
Programs that provide free pizza as incentives for children to read or learn have been controversial, but large chains like CiCi's Pizza and Pizza Hut continue to see these programs as ways to establish themselves as family-friendly brands that care about the same issues families do: motivating young people to learn.
In one of those programs that promote learning, 26 children recently spent an afternoon at a CiCi's Pizza in Federal Heights, Colo., where they learned about math and fractions as they measured cheese and sauce and made their own pizzas.
The children, ages 6 to 10, took part in the Lunch and Learn Field Trip offered by the pizzeria chain to help kids develop math and other skills. They toured the store, completed basic math worksheets, made and ate their pizzas and learned about the importance of cleanliness when it comes to handling food.
Renee Arguello, a supervisor with the Hyland Hills Parks and Recreation Department in Federal Heights, Colo., said her staff was impressed with the trip the park district sponsored to the pizzeria.
"They liked the way the CiCi's staff walked them through the store, showed them measurements and talked about the importance of cleanliness and handling food," Arguello said.
Responding to customer needs
Pizzeria chains like CiCi's and Pizza Hut offer programs that emphasize education as a way to build relationships with families. These programs cater to the needs of parents, children and teachers. CiCi's Lunch and Learning program has been so popular it is launching another initiative this summer to extend its success and reinforce the company's image as a family-oriented brand.
CiCi's Feed Your Brain campaign is presented in partnership with Half Price Books. It runs from June 1 through Aug. 30 and encourages children under 10 to read at least 15 minutes a day, five days a week. Kids keep a reading log which is approved by a parent, and their efforts are rewarded with a free children's pizza buffet at CiCi's or a $3 coupon at Half Price Books.
"We want to continue the relationship we have with families and teachers," said Amie Martin, marketing manager. "This program is supervised and approved by parents. It's something that engages parents and children in a common goal."
She said the program is being offered in response to customers who asked for an incentive program that would help their children continue to learn during the summer months.
Craig Moore, president of CiCi's Pizza, said the program serves an important need.
"Ongoing studies have shown that all young people, particularly those from low-income families, face a significant risk of losing ground academically over the summer months. And a staggering 32.5 million students in grades four through 12 read below the minimum standards," he said.
Martin added that both the Lunch and Learn and Feed Your Brain programs are intended to reach families who fit in the demographic profile of the chain's target customers.
"Our core demographic is a stretched parent," said Martin. "They are really engaged with their children. They are involved with school and sports. But they are stretched for time and money."
Other characteristics of the company's target demographic are families with an average of two children and a household income under $75,000.
Pizza Hut has offered a similar program since 1985. The BOOK IT! program seeks to motivate children in kindergarten through 6th grade to read. It runs October through March.
Teachers who participate in the program set reading goals for students, and those who meet them receive a free, one-topping Personal Pan Pizza, a BOOK IT! card, clip and sticker.
The program has grown to about 23 million students a year and has been so popular that Pizza Hut has a Web site, www.bookitprogram.com/alumni, enabling adults who participated in it as children to reconnect with other readers, share memories about their favorite book and even purchase a T-shirt with the original, 1980s BOOK IT! logo.
For every BOOK IT! T-shirt purchased, Pizza Hut partners with First Book, a nonprofit literacy organization, to donate one book to a needy child.
"There are millions upon millions of people that have participated in BOOK IT!," said Leslie Tubbs, director of the BOOK IT! program. "We have many people write to us about their BOOK IT! memories and how the program inspired them to read more. In fact, some past participants are now parents of children who are enrolled in the program."
Moderation is key
Not everyone feels as positive as Tubbs and Martin about programs that offer pizza as incentives for learning.
"I don't think you should use food as a reward for accomplishments," said Laura Walsh, a registered dietitian and member of the American Dietetic Association. She also is the founder of the Walsh Nutrition Group Inc., a nutrition and culinary consulting company in Elmhurst, Ill.
"But I am realistic and realize that kids do get these rewards," she said. "I think positioning it as a celebration of what the child has done or as a family event works better. This is a special occasion with a special occasion food."
In addition to promoting literacy, she suggested that pizzeria chains might also consider educating children on ways they can make their pizza healthier.
"I don't think it could hurt for them to educate (children) about better options or include information on their menus for smart choices," Walsh said. "I think most people know not to eat pizza too much. It really is just a matter of moderation."
By providing a $3 coupon to Half Price Books as an option besides free pizza, the Feed Your Brain program offers an alternative. And the program continues to reinforce CiCi's image as a place where families want to be.
"As a family-oriented brand, CiCi's Pizza has a great opportunity to encourage our younger generation to â€˜feed their brains' by simply picking up and book," Moore said.