Guest blogger: Pizza perspectives

***Meet Ms. A, our resident (anonymous) food service director contributor. She will be offering a semi-regular pieces about her struggles to better the food environment for youngsters. Before working in school food service, she worked in restaurant kitchens for several years as a cook, pastry chef and sous chef.  She began working for her school, a large private school a couple years ago.  She’s trying to improve the quality and nutrition while reducing the environmental impact of the 500+ lunches served each day. She can be reached at and her new blog Brave New Lunch.***

I want to change school pizza, and I might be able to.  I began working for my school in 2008 and was charged with improving lunch.  Prior to this, I worked in upscale restaurants in New York City where I cooked most things from scratch.

My first Friday at school, I ate school pizza for the first time in many years and wondered, how is this soggy mess even related to pizza?

A look at the ingredient list is frightening: the crust has about twenty-five ingredients, sauce fourteen ingredients, cheese four ingredients, and cheese substitute nineteen.   That’s a staggering sixty-two ingredients and a lot of reasons to take it off the menu.

I knew we should really get rid of this stuff.  Well, how could I take it off the menu three out of four Fridays, and what would I replace it with? It is a year and a half later, and pizza is still on the menu every Friday.  Why?

Kids like pizza.  It almost doesn’t matter how it looks, smells or tastes.  They still like it more than many other school meals.  Just mention the word pizza. It has the ability to elicit smiles from kids.

The kitchen likes pizza too.  It’s a simple meal to prepare, perfect for Fridays when everyone is tired and ready for the weekend.   Pizza comes ninety-six to a case, frozen and ready to plop onto a paper-lined sheet pan.  Since the pizzas are rectangular, they fit perfectly onto the pan and maximize the entire surface area.  Here’s a nice tip: if you place the slices to avoid the sides of pan, the cheese doesn’t burn onto the pan.  It was learned after doing this every week.  All this means it’s less work and clean up is a breeze.

The health/safety director:  Pizza’s an easy meal.  It is a familiar, safe choice, even for preschoolers, who sometime burst into tears when they are faced with unfamiliar food.  Kids can also eat it with their hands, so they don’t need silverware – one less thing to worry about.  With all the food allergies out there, it is nice to have a consistent meal one day a week.  Those who are lactose intolerant or have a wheat allergy already have alternatives set up for them.

Last year, I came up with new menu ideas such as cream of chicken made with evaporated milk and lots of bright veggies, like carrots, broccoli, and peas and a chicken stir-fry with bean sprouts, peppers, and brown rice.  I did try these out, with some success, but never on a Friday.  How do you replace a meal that is so universally loved or at least tolerated by people of all ages?  I didn’t brooch the subject because it seemed so absurd.

I did, however, dream of replacing the frozen stuff with better quality ingredients.  I found a local bakery that makes focaccia by the sheet pans. The ingredient list reads unbleached unbromated wheat flour, filtered water, sea salt, yeast, and olive oil.  Note: no dough softeners, conditioners, or preservatives.   Nothing I wouldn’t want to eat.  My plan was to make our pizzas in-house using foccacia as a base.  I would cut up the foccacia, ladle marinara sauce from a can, and top it with a part-skim mozzarella.  I made a test batch and sent it out during the last of our lunches.  It tasted great, but there are down sides:  It is a lot more work.  It is a lot messier.  It is also a change to a Friday institution that has been around for years before I came along.

I put changing pizza on the back burner as I worked on a few easier changes.  However, now that I have a growing number of collaborators– a few teachers, parents, administration staff – who have been supportive of changes, might it be time to try it again?

NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation.

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36 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Pizza perspectives

  1. My grandmother worked as the head of an Elementary school cafeteria for thirty years. Everything in their school was made from scratch daily and was wonderful to eat. They had a salad bar for the teachers everyday too. Once she retired it all changed to pre-made, frozen meals. As I start to change the way my small family eats, I am surprised at how easy it is to cook from scratch. At least it is much easier than I expected. On a larger scale it does become more difficult, but is it really worth the extra convenience?

  2. I make foccacia pizza in a similar way, except I do not prebake the crust. I just spread the sauce and toppings on the dough and bake as usual. If you left a crust border on both of the long sides, and spread the toppings to the very edges, you could still turn out fairly uniform slices while saving the work of pre-cutting and then topping each individual slice.

  3. I wonder how many ingredients many fast food chain pizza have, like Pizza Hut, Papa Johns, or Dominoes? It'd be interesting to find out how school pizza compares with fast food pizza.

  4. The 62 ingredients freak me out. I have fond memories of Friday pizza at my elementary school, but I fear it must have been similar to the 62-ingredient pizza. It certainly didn't taste like any other pizza from anywhere else.

    I say, go for it! Try out the new pizza, maybe just once a month? And then gradually increase it until every Friday involves the new pizza. I think it's worth it, to produce a better quality meal.

    You know you can't change from pizza to something healthier, so if you can improve within the pizza category, that sounds like a great plan.

  5. My high school has a variety of food that has only about two more choices than this school cafeteria does, yet somehow I can only eat two or rarely three out of each menu choice that is available. Just cause the portions do not equal the appeal of the food item itself.

    Calzone being the rarest, Pizza being the second common, and I get two spicy chicken sandwiches if they are served that day at the line that is not invaded horribly.

    The lunches here can be decent but they CAN DEFINITELY be strange, the pizza basically, the cheese does not taste incredibly creepy unless it is browned a bit. My brain processes the idea that the cheese is quality when it's somewhat brown. That is not supposed to happen.

  6. All those carbs can't be good for kids at lunchtime, when they need sustainable release energy that won't put them to sleep by mid-afternoon. Frankly, I think this whole idea of letting kids run the show is one of the biggest problems here. Kids like pizza, so we have to give it to them? No freaking way. They'll eat what they're given or they'll go hungry (going hungry for the day, btw, won't kill them). Replace pizza with something fun and tasty – say, a cheesy crustless quiche topped with pepperoni, accompanied by a cup of (sugar-free!) baked beans and a bunch of grapes – and see how it goes. Honestly, kids need to be told NO every once in a while.

  7. ah this is such a hard one for me. i know it needs to change and i definitely would like better meals served for my daughter when she goes to school but i looooved our schools pizza, even though i knew how bad it was for me. i even craved it during my first pregnancy!!

    a good place to look for ideas of how to make it easier to make the healthy pizzas would be the blogs of moms with large families who do batch and once a month cooking. they have those things down to a science and they usually try to find the healthiest ways possible to make it.

  8. I don't understand why people immediately assume pizza is bad for you! Last night we had pizza for dinner – homemade crust with white flour, corn flour, ground flax seed, small amount of olive oil, water, yeast, and a little sugar to activate the yeast. The sauce was freshly diced tomatoes, sliced garlic, and fresh basil. Toppings were peppers along with olives, paper-thin sliced cured bacon, and goat cheese from the farmer's market. (Btw, I'm also a grad student, so don't think I have money to burn – eating well is easy and cheap when you make things from scratch)

    Now, obviously this would be hard to scale to school lunch, but keep the crust on the reasonably thin side and do cheese the old Napoli way – namely, slices spaced throughout and to a minimum. Add a veggie or two and some spices, and voila! Healthy pizza that's also delicious!!

  9. What Jackie said. This is yet another example of what George Carlin, shortly before his death, derisively termed the new culture of "child worship" in America.

    Try to make things that are both healthy and that kids will enjoy, by all means. If you want the kids to call the shots, set up a salad bar for them. Otherwise, they should eat what they are given. If it makes you feel better, call each such meal a "teachable moment" and be happy that you are every so gently, but firmly, broadening their food horizons.

    I bet some kids burst into tears when first confronted with fractions, too, but you still make them learn it…

  10. A 62-ingredient pizza? No wonder there is a population of youth needing medications and navigating a life filled with allergies!

  11. "Kids run the show" because they like Pizza? I don't think so…. Having ONE meal that they truly enjoy one day a week isn't really running the show.

    We have 3 different types of pizza on our menu but even though it might say "cheese pizza wedge" they might end up with a pizza square. Sometimes the kitchen is cooking big round pizzas all morning and sometimes it the squares. We also have a stuffed crust pizza that is wheat I believe. The cheese wedge is the BEST! It's called Big Daddy Pizza and sometimes I get lucky and there's some left over and I bring it home. My husband and son fight over it – seriously it's THAT GOOD.

    Every year in our school system we have School Lunch Week and a few new items are introduced and they have a contest and all the kids vote on their favorite school lunch. The winner every year?: PIZZA. EVERY.YEAR.

  12. While I get what Nancy is saying, I have to say I hate, hate, hate the idea that automatically if somebody desires to eat something that it must be 1) bad for you and 2) okay to give into.

    This is the slippery slope folks! It is not okay to teach our kids that the only food really worth craving is exactly the kind of things they shouldn't. It is not okay to take something perfectly and inherently healthy like pizza and overload it with fat in the form of cheese-product and sugar in the form of pizza sauce, completely remove any vegetables and nutritional value from it, and then still call it food.

    Pizza is the perfect vehicle to begin changing eating habits, not the last thing you want to touch! Call it pizza, and kids will eat it! Heck, you could make a curry & serve it on top of some naan and as long as you call it "Indian Pizza", kids will come running for it! Meanwhile, you've given yourself a chance to introduce the idea of lentils (dal), spices (other than salt) for flavor instead of fat & sugar, and you could sneak in some cauliflower and chicken while you're at it!

    We need to redefine what delicious foods mean in this country – and fast! Spices and seasonings make pretty much anything taste utterly spectacular. Just as good as sugar or fat would! Sugar and fat in and of themselves aren't bad – in fact, fat is needed to signal satiation and absorb certain vitamins and minerals. Nowadays, however, sugar and fat aren't just a natural part of eating oils, avocados, nuts, fatty meats, cheeses, etc., they are the end all and be all of how we flavor our food, and they've been distilled down to their essence in unrecognizable ways. And in certain cases are used to actually induce cravings for more foods and food products then we need for health or nutrition – or, let's face it, beyond even what we need for enjoyment.

    There is a very good discussion on the Diane Rehm show (NPR) with the former head of the FDA David Kessler on his book "The End of Overeating". It is well worth giving a listen:

  13. Ms. A – I work in the same market as you (NYC independent schools food service.) I know your struggles with pizza and like all too well. Pizza is a good menu item for many reasons. Over the years I have pushed manufacturers to provide products that will make it healthier (whole wheat crust and park skim, hormone free mozzarella) and still maintain the ease of preparation. If you would like to contact me personally, I am certain I can help you source what you are looking for. Email me at: if you are interested.

    Julia: Awesome idea for "Indian Pizza"!!! I'm gonna try it in my schools! Thanks 🙂

  14. And of those 62 ingredients, how many of them are something that a 6th grader would recognize as food?

    Such as "tomatoes, wheat, milk" etc?

  15. Same anonymous – I just want to add.
    Yes kids like pizza but this article completely sums up the challenge the school lunch providers have in providing a reasonably healthy affordable meal. The 62 ingredient chemical laden franken-food pizza is cheap and easy. They have small staffs and smaller budgets, they can get it into the oven, to the kids, and get everything cleaned-up … all while staying within budget.

    I find it horrifying that our "industry" or "society" or whomever makes it impossible for them to roll out a dough, spread a marinara sauce, grill some vegetables and top it with a low fat mozzarella cheese. Really people, a healthy pizza should be one of the cheapest meals we could think of to serve the kids!

    No matter who is doing the paying – be it the government or the families – you get WHAT you pay for. If you want cheap lunches the result is crappy food. Where are our priorities?

  16. I love the guest bloggers, but I still want to see what YOU had for lunch that day. 🙂

  17. I don't understand why this school is buying all there items frozen and processed that is gross! I am a Director in Michigan and I switched to fresh everything as one of my first goals. It was a little time consuming to teach "lunch ladies" how to work with fresh vs. open a can and pour, but our lunch participation soared and so did our profits. I think this sounds like a lack of knowledge as a sous chef is just an assistant in the kitchen so maybe the knowledge isn't there or maybe the time isn't there to teach them? I also have a union staff so I had to fit it all in during our negotiated work times. It can be done, but it takes a few months!

  18. You all make a good point but you all need to think of one thing. The people cooking and ordering this food have a buget and are able to do only so much with the money they have. I am the manager of a small high school campus in TX. and I only have a $1.50 in cost to feed each child lunch, off the top of that, milk cost 35cents. So the people in charge of bugets need to be talked to not the people that work daily to do the best they can.

  19. It is worth considering that an added benefit of Friday "pizza" is that it is meatless, thereby being sensitive to those students that are Catholic and abstain from meat on Fridays. I suppose it is a non-issue if you are at a religiously affiliated non-Catholic school. It really isn't that difficult to make scratch pizza, and if its just cheese pizza it isn't very messy either.

  20. Ms. A, if I took shortcuts at work to make my job easier at the risk of not doing a good job (even Fridays when I'm tired), I wouldn't blame my employer for firing me.

    I understand not wanting to do things the hard way for no good reason, but we're talking about the health of the students under your care. Not taking the healthier route because it is harder and messier for you is really not in your kids' best interest. You have a hard, messy job. It's the nature of the work if it is done well. Taking the easy route leads to the pre-made horrors at Mrs. Q's school. Homemade takes time. Homemade involves cleanup. That's something that just comes with the territory. Did your previous workplace (the restaurant) do things the easy way or the messy way? Granted, I understand the customers now (i.e., school kids) are not paying as much as the customers then, but I bet the hours and atmoshphere are a lot better at the school.

    And I also agree with some of the posters who say the kids shouldn't be in charge of what is offered. Would it be advisable to do that at home too? Just let the kids determine the menu and let them eat whatever they want all the time? Then why is that OK at school? I understand you want to serve things the kids will eat, but give them some credit, ease in the changes, and don't let that necessitate crappy food.

  21. The fast food industry has first pick ahead of our U.S. schools! Now, that's frightening. No wonder our children are obese. This is abuse. Parents can stop it. I strongly urge contacting This group is headed by a vegan, Dr. Neal Barnard and is made up of about 50,000 doctors telling us meat and dairy causes disease. I'm vegetarian 17 years, vegan 4. I'm 56 years old, have no health problems and am bouncing off the walls with energy!!!!!!

  22. This is a wonderful thing to be blogging for – the health of our kids! I blog at about my journey into veganism – it's time we stop eating all the fake food they've been pushing in this country for the past 50 years!

  23. My Kindergartener son loves pizza. He was so happy to learn that the school "restuarant" serves pizza on Fridays. It's March – the luster has worn off. He is allowed to buy his lunch 2 days a week and Friday was always one of his choices. A few months ago, on Friday morning, he asked if I would make a lunch for him. Make a lunch?? On Friday??? With the most serious face in the world he looked up at me and said "My brain can't make my stomach like that pizza anymore". Out of the mouths of babes!

  24. At my daughter's district preschool they have, at least once a week, "breakfast pizza". It's basically the same square,nasty pizza from lunch time but with sausage instead of pepperoni. This last week on the same morning that they served this the nutrition teachers came out to the breakfast tables to give us parents info on how to make more nutritious choices……pizza(nasty pizza at that) for breakfast doesn't make me think nutrition….And why do they continue to serve this same square pizza that none of the kids eat? I think that pizza is to blame for all these teachers losing their jobs,lol….it's a total waste of a meal!!!

  25. I work in a school cafeteria and this lady is ticking me off…i don't think there is anything wrong with having pizza on fridays. In my school, we don't have JUST pizza. There is always a choice. This past Friday we had pizza, spaghetti with meat sauce, fish sandwiches or a taco salad. And of course peanut butter sandwiches for the picky. Along with those mains, we had green beans seasoned but with no butter or oil, baked potatoes, corn on the cob, and plenty of fresh fruit to include grapes and tangerines. And rolls too. And side salads or cole slaw. Can't forget those. And we serve salsa as an alternative to salad dressings; which btw are rationed out because ranch is fattening.
    I don't know what this lady is cooking for her kids at home, but i guarantee it is not gourmet meals. I would like to know what this ladys' husband does so she can afford organic applesauce and soy peanut butter everyday. I know a teachers salary doesn't cover it. And if it does, her mortgage would be late.
    It should come down to PARENTS teaching their children to make healthier choices. Make them exercise. Don't take them to McDonalds everyday because it's faster.
    The school lunches may not be perfect, but you're blaming the wrong person honey. These kids eat one meal at school everyday. That leaves two other meals remaining that the family is responsible for providing the kids. What are they offering? Anything good? More healthy choices than the school? Not the way healthy foods costs these days. The expectation is set solely on the schools to keep our children healthy. The school should be a part of it, but not the primary source.
    This lady needs to shut up and talk to the parents about meals at home.
    We are doing the best we can with the budget we have. And keep in mind how much it would cost to hire the extra personnel to come in and make that stir fry she wants. The cost of the food, help and then it would be thrown away because the kids have no idea what it is because they have never seen it at home before.
    You as a parent have the option to contact the cafeteria manager and have it noted in your childs' account if you do not want your child to have certain foods or extra foods.
    You can still have the final say so in your childs lunch.
    And if you can't deal with that, keep packing your expensive stuff that no one else can afford and stop complaining.

  26. That gummy mess of a square is all too familiar to me. I came up through elementary school in the 90's, and pizza was KING. And it still is, apparently. The line would get crazy for pizza day and chicken nugget day whenever we had them, and we used to pour so much ranch dressing on our pizza and salads that they started charging extra for it. For me, it was the only way to make that pizza tolerable! Now I simply won't stand for any pizza that resembles a plastic toy. Guggghh, it's awful! I feel so sad that kids actually look forward to that stuff, ignorant of the 60+ ingredients and poor nutritional value. :-/

  27. "I would like to know what this ladys' husband does so she can afford organic applesauce and soy peanut butter everyday. I know a teachers salary doesn't cover it. And if it does, her mortgage would be late."

    Anon, you're conflating the article written ABOUT the blog by an author for Yahoo who describes the soy butter, etc. for her son, with the author of this blog about her particular lunches. Furthermore, this particular entry you're commenting on is from a guest blogger specifically about the pizza served at her school. She did not mention what items are served with it, as the focus of the post was about making the PIZZA healthier.

    Take the time to actually read and comprehend what you're reading before flying off the handle – you just might learn something!

  28. School-lunch pizzas are a bigger mystery to me than any mystery meat.

    When I was in elementary school, the pizzas were pale, dimpled bread squares covered by a "flap" of tough cheese – on a good day, we'd get bits of sausage mixed with this cheese-like substance. My classmates and I spent many a lunch hour theorizing about what the sausage bits really were (boogers was a popular theory).

  29. As much as I find this interesting, our guest blogger is not a math teacher. There are 4 products: crust (25), sauce (14), cheese (4) & cheese substitute (19) whose ingredient totals are aggregated to 62. While that is rudimentary arithmetic, it is a failure of reasoning. I am disappointed in our host, a teacher, for not pointing out this glaring error of logic.
    I suspect all 4 products contain salt, which is now likely quadruple counted, bringing the total down to 59. Water is also probably counted multiple times, and perhaps milk and a number of preservatives.

    Moreover, what does it matter how many ingredients are in an item? Many people like multi-grain breads, which have more ingredients than plain whole wheat.

    And I know preservatives get knocked around quite a bit, but without them, much food would not reach the table without rotting. Not everyone can afford locally sourced groceries. The school lunch program, which provides some of the only meals to children in poverty, would go bankrupt if it had to buy from Whole Foods.

    Childhood obesity is a serious concern and it is the pet project of the First Lady. Of all things, one is certain: if you burn more calories than you consume, you will lose weight. Let's make exercise a priority: bring back dodgeball at recess; make school sports free to join; and make sure phys. ed. is graded and calculated in a GPA and class rank.

  30. Blech! I always hated school pizza, even when I was a little kid. It always tasted rubbery, the sauce was sweet, and the crust seemed underdone.
    When I got into middle school, they started serving us giant slices of buttered french bread with cheese melted over it in lieu of pizza. It definitely tasted better, but I always felt a little ashamed to be served such a half-assed dish by educators.
    These days, I'm still a student and pretty broke, but I manage to make meals that are simple and inexpensive while also being delicious and nutritious. A can of diced tomatoes and some wheat pasta will feed me for two days while costing less than four dollars.
    Hopefully, the public school system will make its way out of the culinary dark ages.
    Thanks, Mrs. Q!

  31. Now that picture of school pizza is what I had served in my school! They serve it at 4-H camp here, too. It is the one meal I refuse to eat that week.

  32. I keep seeing people say the same thing over and over, "We are doing the best we can with the budget we have…" HELLO!!!! Is nobody going to go to the local gov't and say give us more money to feed the children the right way??? Instead you are willing to feed them crap and cause them future health problems rather than fight the system. What happened to the gutsy people in this country. Stand up for the children! I don't care about the stupid budget. Blow the friggin budget every month and show that we aren't gonna feed kids that garbage! They are not cattle, they are people and the future of this country. Priorities people! Sheesh.

  33. Hey-

    Chain pizza isn't really better, and people choose to buy it. People love pizza. I love pizza. But, it doesn't mean it's healthy. The real deal isn't the school serving substandard foods, because, let's face it, this has been going on for a looong time (just like in hospitals)! The deal is, now we, as a public with more information than ever at our disposal, have realized it isn't so good for us to eat this way.

    Someone wondered what the number of ingredients had to do with anything. Dude, talk to a nutritionist. The number of ingredients in a dish indicates EVERYTHING about it's healthiness.

    Here are the ingredients to a national chain's pizzas, that people willingly fork over $$ to get when they're at home…
    Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin Folic Acid), Water, Malt, Sugar, Whey, Malted Barley Flour, Yeast, Soybean Oil. Zzesty Blend: Butter Flavored Oil (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Soy Lecithin, Artificial And Natural Butter Flavoring, Vitamin A Palmitate And Beta-Carotene for Color), Imitation Parmesan Cheese (Water, Modified Food Starch, Casein And Or Caseinate, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Cellulose Powder, Salt, Sodium Phosphates, Stabilizers [Mono And Diglycerides, Guar Gum, Carrageenan], Natural Flavor, Lactic Acid, Sorbic Acid [As A Preservative]), Onion And Garlic, Spices, Salt, Lactic Acid, Butter Flavor, Tomato Powder, Bell Pepper. Dextrose, Citric Acid, Extractive Of Paprika And Lemon And Orange Oil With No Greater Than 2% Calcium Silicate And/Or Soybean Oil Added to Prevent Caking, Corn Meal (used in preparation).

    Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Sugar, Salt, Spices, Garlic, Soybean Oil, and Citric Acid

    Cheese:Part Skim Mozzarella Cheese (Pasteurized Milk, Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Modified Food Starch, Cellulose (Added To Prevent Caking), Nonfat Milk, Whey Protein Concentrate, Flavors, Sodium Propionate (Added as a Preservative).

    So, for a lot of these children, the school lunch's lack of nutritional value is right in line with the rest of their diet.

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