In a landslide, pizza is No. 1 Schools: In cafeterias across the country, students prefer pizza to any other lunch choice. It is served at least once a week, sometimes more often, in area schools.

September 06, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

At 11 a.m. every Friday, second-grader Nicholas Maloney performs a dissection at Hillcrest Elementary in Catonsville.

Like millions of American children, he chooses his favorite hot school lunch -- pizza. He carries it to his table, lifts off in one piece the 4-by-6-inch layer of cheese, then folds it in half, sauce side in. That's the part he eats.

"He always does that," fellow second-grader Erin Whelan said from across the cafeteria table last Friday.

Children may be picky, but pizza is the universal favorite in school cafeterias.

And Friday is the traditional day for pizza in many counties, including Carroll, Baltimore and Anne Arundel. Schools in Harford County and Baltimore serve it at least once a week, sometimes more often in high schools. Harford's most popular breakfast item is a "breakfast pizza," on a biscuit crust.

Howard schools serve pizza lunches daily -- 1,083,600 slices by the end of this school year, said Mary Klatko, administrator for food and nutrition.

"If you can't get them to eat anything else, you can get them to eat pizza," Klatko said. She offers it as an alternative that 20 percent to 50 percent will choose on a given day. For example, more children will pick pizza on a day when the other choice is a sloppy joe, and fewer on a day when the main selection is chicken nuggets.

No vegetables, please

Nationwide, 37 percent of the 26 million children who eat hot lunches named pizza as their first choice. An additional 20 percent named it their second favorite. The closest rivals are tacos and chicken nuggets, tied at 12 percent each.

The statistics come from Jim Cole, a chef and is manager of economic research for the American School Food Service Association in Alexandria, Va.

"Notice there are no vegetables on that list," Cole said with dismay. But pizza, he said, "is really healthy, if you use low-fat cheese, and a lot of places do now. And the kids accept it."

The customers for school lunches likes the food simple, recognizable and easy to eat. Finger foods are the most popular. You don't need a fork for pizza.

Rochelle Weinreich, a third-grader at Sandymount Elementary School in Finksburg, said pizza is the only lunch she'll buy.

"The soft taco is too soft and the hard tacos are too hard," she said, but the pizza is just right.

"They just don't do the salad right," Rochelle said. "It doesn't taste like my mom's, and I like my mom's better. And the white milk tastes different than the kind my mom buys, so I have to get chocolate milk."

At Hillcrest, second-grader Lilly Vanek eats pizza for lunch on Fridays knowing that is what her parents will serve at home that night.

"Every Friday, we get pizza and a movie," she said.

Boon for workers

Lilly's parents have something in common with the Carroll cafeteria workers, who like pizza on Fridays because it's easier for them. No preparation is required -- the cheese pizzas come ready for the oven -- and that gives them time for end-of-the-week equipment cleaning.

It does, however, mean a more hectic serving line, because so many more children buy lunch on pizza days.

At Sandymount, cafeteria manager Shirley Sawyer urges children to take a fruit cup or salad along with their cheese or pepperoni slices, but most pass right on to the made-from-scratch peanut butter cookies.

When Sawyer serves pizza today, she can count on having 90 percent of the students buying hot lunches choose it over the alternative, a cold-cut sub.

Striving for variety

Eulalia Muschik, food services supervisor in Carroll, said that a few schools in her county offer pizza more frequently, but that in general, the cafeterias try for a variety of foods.

And Sawyer likes the idea that children look forward to pizza day.

"I would think they'd get tired" of pizza more than once a week, she said.

Students don't seem to tire of it in Howard County, Klatko said. Over the years, menu trends have come and gone. Items such as beef stew and meatloaf were eliminated because they didn't sell.

Klatko and other food service managers have to run their cafeterias like businesses to break even. Especially in Howard, where only 10 percent of children get free or reduced-price lunches, Klatko caters to her clientele. Even in elementary schools, she offers three choices, one of which is always pizza.

"I try to capture the paying child," she said. "I didn't have to fight for that in the other counties where I worked. In order to do that, you have to be like a restaurant."

All over Maryland, cafeteria managers hold occasional taste tests to have children try new foods.

That includes pizza, for which two companies dominate the school market but several others compete.

Chains make bid

Ray Wall, a Baltimore-based food broker who deals with schools, said at least five companies bid every time a Maryland school system requests a pizza vendor. It's big business -- Howard County is spending $402,618 on pizzas this year, Klatko said, and Carroll schools will spend $158,312.

Chains such as Pizza Hut have tried to get in on the school lunch business, but Wall said he doesn't know of any Baltimore-area schools served by national companies.

Carroll and Howard buy their pizza from Better Baked, a Pennsylvania-based division of Schwan's Sales Enterprises, which also owns the largest maker of school pizzas, Tony's.

The Better Baked pizza stands out, Muschik and Klatko said, because its crust is not too thin, not too thick and is topped with a combination of mozzarella and white Cheddar cheeses. That provides the all-white look students expect of the cheese, but with Cheddar flavor, they said.

Klatko said that other companies have bid for Howard's business but that they don't meet those cheese specifications, and the children notice.

She once served a sample from another company that used yellow Cheddar. No dice.

"The children said, 'What's wrong with that pizza?' " Klatko said.

Pub Date: 9/06/96

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