A British Columbia pizza firm that changed its recipe because of new provincial guidelines found it also had to shake up the way cafeteria workers thought about kids' meals.
The Panago Pizza chain has spent the past year tweaking its recipe in an effort to gain the top rating under new provincial guidelines on healthy school lunches that came into effect this month.
Panago's executive chef, Jason Symington, traded white dough for whole wheat, added tomato sauce, tinkered with serving size and even did the unthinkable: added vegetables without making any effort to mask them.
However, in changing the recipe to make it healthier, Symington found himself confronting lunch attendants who told him point blank that the kids wouldn't eat veggies. Panago has lunch contracts with nearly 70 schools in the Vancouver and Burnaby area.
"The very first meeting I had with the cafeteria staff, I was standing there in my chef's whites," he recalled. "They said, 'We know the kids, and the kids won't eat vegetables. Can you blend them into the sauce or something?'"
But for Symington, it wasn't just a matter of making pizza more healthy. Taking a page from British chef Jamie Oliver, he wanted the students to recognize that veggies on a pizza weren't a bad thing and could even be tasty.
Oliver gained fame when he set about changing the notoriously unhealthy school lunches in the U.K.
In an effort to improve lunches in B.C., the Health Department created four categories of school food based on nutritional value: "Not Recommended," "Choose Least," "Choose Sometimes" and "Choose Most."
Most of Panago's pizzas fell within the "Choose Sometimes" category, but the company decided every pizza had to get top rating, and the tinkering began.
The first step was getting rid of the big baddies: trans fats, MSG, artificial colour and artificial flavour — not so easy for a pizza chain for which the speed of food prep is important, said Symington.
He added vegetables, including green and red peppers. He removed ham from the Hawaiian pizza and replaced it with chicken to get the sodium levels down while keeping protein up.
The company also toyed with serving size. They thought about cutting back on cheese, but school officials recommended against it, saying for some kids, it was the only dairy they got during the day.
A year later, every pizza had achieved the highest rating, the "Choose Most" category, and Symington had a chance to meet some of the same school cafeteria staff who'd originally balked at peppers on a pizza. They told him the kids loved his new creations, whole grains and all.
"It was really inspiring," said Symington.