Although the recent New York Times article on Domino’s smart slice commendably highlights the perils of branding school lunches, the article fails to address a more pressing issue. The Domino’s smart slice is dangerous because it suggests that processed pizza is good nutrition. Since the slice looks identical to regular pizza, the likelihood that kids will associate regular Dominos with good nutrition outside of school increases. While the danger of introducing excess big brands into schools presents various problems, the real health threat isn’t the brand names but the new meaning they attain by participating in a healthy foods initiative.
Nutritionists, health experts, cooks and parents agree: whole foods are good foods. When regulations indicate that half the grains present in a school lunch must be whole-grains, this shouldn’t count flour — especially not modified ‘Snowmass’ flour — but the grain from which the flour was made. Though the article correctly mentions that ConAgra’s now-ubiquitous Ultragrain flour enables big-food to sell sub-par nutrition to kids, the underlying problem remains widespread cultural scepticism for whole-grains. Although whole-grains have changed from being a low-class to an upper-class food, they are still the undesirable alternative. Giving a kid whole-grain rice would be simultaneously too cheap and too snooty.
Moving toward a healthier diet for kids and adults, in schools and at home, shouldn’t involve making foods fit within our comfort zone, but discovering ways to broaden what we find acceptable. The reduced-fat cheese, pepperoni and reduced-sodium tomato sauce falls into the trap of following now-outdated healthy eating guidelines. Despite recent research showing benefits related to natural fats, this concept remains alien to the American public. Using reduced-fat cheese and pepperoni puts a band-aid over America’s nutrition problem. Domino’s cannot risk shifting the meaning of their pizza by using less pepperoni or less cheese. The slice would look overtly ‘healthy’. Yet, it would also help children understand the building blocks of a better diet. Eat real food; eat less of it.
While the ingredients that go into the smart slice are a fascinating testament to modern food production, it’s the cultural meaning of these ingredients that poses the real threat to public health. It’s disturbing to know that there is a whole-wheat flour that mimics white flour, but assigning this white-looking dough the meaning healthy is the real danger facing school lunches. If the government wants to introduce healthy eating into the cafeteria, they need to be hyperaware of how healthy is defined. As they work to alter what good food means to the American public, the focus should be on both the ingredients and the cultural ramifications of a given foodstuff. Food doesn’t exist in a nutritional vacuum, but interacts with people and the geographic and temporal spaces that created it.