Getting pizza ready for school
Despite the perception that incorporating better-for-you ingredients onto the menu can cost operators money, not doing so can cost even more.
 
Serving foods that contain trans fats and other potentially unhealthy ingredients could cause operators to lose one of their best marketing efforts: the school pizza party.

According to the 2009 Pizza Marketplace Pizza Industry Study, nearly 50 percent of pizzeria operators cited school events as a major driver of business. Along with the revenue they bring in, operators consider school pizza parties a great way to win new customers.

Canadian pizza chain Panago Pizza, which operates 160 stores throughout the Great White North, tweaked its recipes in order to stay on the menu in Vancouver schools. The company transitioned all ingredients on their menu so they did not contain added trans fat, MSG and artificial flavors or colors.

In 2005, the Ministry of Health and Education in British Columbia introduced a set of guidelines in an effort to reduce junk food in schools. The guidelines, revised in 2008, created four categories based on foods' nutritional value – "Not Recommended," "Choose Least," "Choose Sometimes" and "Choose Most."

The guidelines are designed to help schools decide what products should be served in cafeterias and sold in vending machines.

The guidelines were based on Canada's Food Guide, a diet planning tool produced by Health Canada, the department of the government of Canada responsible for national public health. Foods falling under the "Not Recommended" or "Choose Least" categories have been eliminated from school offerings and have been replaced with "Choose Most" or "Choose Sometimes" options.

Working with a dietitian, Panago made changes to its product offerings to ensure they met and exceeded the school board's requirements. Schools can order individualized salads along with cheese, chicken and pineapple, pepperoni or garden veggie pizzas on a multigrain thin crust that all fall under the "Choose Most" category.

The company focused on maintaining flavor to ensure that removing trans fat wasn't noticeable to the consumer.
 
"In many cases, we were not only able to remove trans fats but also improve the overall quality and performance of the products," said Jason Symington, Panago Pizza's corporate chef.

Making the switch didn't happen without difficulties, although Panago was able to make the changes with a minimal impact on costs.

"Many suppliers in the QSR category are more focused on low cost versus product quality and innovation, so we experienced some challenges with suppliers because of the potential for increases in costs," Symington said. "A second barrier was suppliers not having the knowledge, expertise or lack of technology to deal with the issue."

Shutting down the party

Pizza parties are coming under fire in the United States as well. In 2006, Knox County, Tenn., schools banned pizza parties over concerns about childhood obesity. And in 2008, school officers in Queens, N.Y., called a halt to one elementary school's once-a-month "Pizza Day," setting the stage for a city-wide ban on school pizza parties. 

 
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"In California, pizzeria operators must follow strict guidelines in order to serve up slices at school," said Jonathan Fornaci, president and CEO of San Ramon, Calif.-based Straw Hat Pizza. The company operates nearly 60 restaurants in the western United States.

"They actually break it down by what can be provided for an elementary age child, a middle school and high school child, to ensure that the child does not get too many calories, fat or sodium," Fornaci said. "We are legally required in California to provide a nutritional brochure to any person who asks, and it has to be a take away brochure, not just a posting."

With a little attention, though, operators should be able to come up with pizza recipes that pass healthy eating guidelines, said Dorothy Lyons, a nutritionist with Toronto-based diet delivery and weight loss company Nutrition in Motion Ltd.

"If you think about it, it's got all the food groups - grains in the dough, dairy in the cheese, fruits and vegetables - tomatoes are actually fruits - healthy fats and meats or meat products," Lyons said. "Despite the fact that pizza can be somewhat high in calories and fats, if it's made sensibly, it can not only be delicious, but it can be very good for developing kids who need energy to get them through their school days."

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