ST. CHARLES, La. -- On a typical day, two-thirds of the 700 students eating lunch at Destrehan High School buy pizza delivered by a local Domino's Pizza franchise, despite what else is on the menu.
According to The Times-Picayune a new law allows outside corporations to bring fast food to state public school cafeterias in St. Charles and Jefferson parishes.
School cafeteria operators say serving the fast food saves on labor costs, addresses the declining demand for traditional cafeteria fare, and alleviates storage space problems.
Critics say the new law encourages students to eat unhealthy fast food while allowing commercial brands to market inside schools. They also say it takes money from local food distributors.
"It's a sensitive issue," said Cynthia Ruffin, director of food nutrition for St. Charles Parish. "The fear is not the fast food. The fear is what happens to nutrition education. If we start serving all fast food, what are we teaching them about nutrition? But I still think Domino's does a better job than us at making pizza."
Wendy Mangiaracina, food service director for Jefferson Parish, began negotiating with Domino's after the School Board cut $3 million from her budget in 2001.
Through Domino's school lunch program, it offered the school system a way to boost revenue and cut expenses. Instead of cafeteria workers heating frozen pizza, Domino's would make the pies according to district standards, at the same cost, and deliver them hot.
Because the amount of federal money school systems receive for school lunches is based on the number of meals sold, persuading students to opt for pizza rather than a sandwich from home means more money for already under-funded school meal programs.
Other U.S. school systems enjoy similar arrangements. According to the American School Food Service Association, more than 30 percent of public school cafeterias now offer some kind of branded fast food. Taco Bell sells products in 4,500 schools nationwide. Subway operates in about 1,500 schools, with at least 20 districts running their own franchises.
Domino's pizza is served in about 12.5 percent of cafeterias around the country. With the opening of the 2001-02 school year, Jefferson offered Domino's pizza daily to middle and high school students and once a week at elementary schools. St. Charles serves the pizza daily at its two high schools.
Within a month, Mangiaracina said, almost 10 percent more students bought lunches in school instead of bringing their own or eating off campus.
"They sell it to us wholesale and we turn it around," Mangiaracina said. "It works. Our participation has risen 8 percent and our extra sales, when students buy an extra slice, have been phenomenal, which is really important to revenue."
Both districts say pizza is now their best-selling item. One day last week, 329 Destrehan students bought pizza meals (which come with fresh fruit and milk), while 157 chose the cafeteria's pork roast with gravy over rice. Both meals cost $1.35.
Ashley LeBlanc, a 2001 Destrehan graduate, is the Domino's delivery driver who prepares and delivers the 72 pizzas daily to the school. She said each slice has exactly five slices of fat-free pepperoni, and that skim cheese is blended with Domino's standard mozzarella.
Cafeteria workers call the diminutive LeBlanc, "The Mosquito," because of the way she struggles with the delivery bags full of pies.
"These bags aren't exactly light," she said. "I'm so ready for summer."