Betsy Beltran clapped when she saw the new school lunch entree: cheese and pepperoni slices, thick with melted mozzarella and a bubbling crust.
"New pizza!" the freshman cheered, eyeing sleek red-and-black warmers just installed at Bloomingdale High School. They feature a hip logo, "Big daddy's: Any other slice is just a sliver."
It's a healthier slice, too. But that's not advertised to the students, whose picky taste buds will make or break the Hillsborough school district's efforts to dish up a leaner pizza that won't end up in trash bins.
"It's soft on the outside," Betsy said, satisfied with the first bite. "And it's good on the inside.
"It tastes like pizza."
Pizza with a well-disguised nutritional profile. At Hillsborough's request, a national vendor made sure students couldn't taste the whole wheat in the crust, or detect melting differences in the low-fat cheese.
School lunch planners hail the slimmed-down pizza - now being rolled out across the county - as a step forward in the fight against childhood obesity.
But mediocre taste isn't an option - if Bloomingdale students don't like school lunch, they can walk next door to Domino's after dismissal.
"We still needed to have the cheesy slice of pizza to satisfy pizza cravings," said Heather Wellings, a Hillsborough school nutritionist helping with the trial runs of the new pizza. "But we also wanted to trick them and put in some whole grain and reduced-fat cheese - anywhere we can hide something."
Appeal to the eyes
Like other schools across Hillsborough, the Bloomingdale cafeteria is seeking to invigorate its lunch lines with items both healthier and more appetizing.
Gone are the chopped and pressed chicken patties plopped into a bun. The new chicken sandwich looks more like that sold at Chick-fil-A.
To hype salads, Hillsborough took a hint from fast-food chains. It invested in black plastic bowls with clear tops, a la Wendy's.
"We have to have it look and taste like what they're familiar with," said Mary Kate Harrison, general manager of student nutrition. "We've seen more kids picking up a veggie, or fruit or milk by going through that line and getting that better entree."
Persuading students to eat well is half the battle. Hillsborough also has to comply with a federal lunch program that ensures students leave school with a full belly. Some children may not get another meal at home. But many do, plus snacks in between.
For $2.25, a high school lunch includes an entree, a beverage and up to three sides. And it has to provide 819 calories - or one-third of the dietary guidelines.
So the school lunch line becomes a balancing act. Cafeterias seek to lure in students with a mix of choices. They hope children make healthy selections.
At 400 calories a slice, the new pizza doesn't compare to a salad or fruit bowl. But each slice contains barely half the calories the federal government requires middle and high schools to serve at lunch.
Not all healthier offerings are a hit. Case in point: the reduced-fat chocolate chip cookie that debuted this fall in high schools. Kids panned it.
"You mess with their cookie, and they're not happy," said Wellings, the nutritionist.
Hillsborough will return to the traditional cookie next semester. But high schools will sell a 1.3-ounce cookie, smaller than the former 2-ounce portion.
'Big daddy' modified
Remember the days of eat-what-you-are-served school lunches? Here's a reality check: Today, even the PB&J sandwich is complicated. Hillsborough buys them prepackaged to avoid contaminating the food served to students with peanut allergies.
And pizza is big, big business. Bloomingdale High orders about 100 pies from Pizza Hut daily.
Nationally, fresh-delivered pizza is a $250-million business in schools, said Mary Begalle, national marketing manager for schools for Schwan's food service.
Two years ago, Schwan's came out with "Big daddy" pizza, marketed to schools as a frozen product that could compete with Papa John's and Domino's. Hillsborough asked for a healthier version.
Schwan's took the challenge back to its pizza plant in Florence, Ky. It figured that a leaner pizza pie perfected in Hillsborough, the nation's eighth-largest school district, would have appeal elsewhere.
But it also heeded a lesson learned during the last low-fat movement of the mid 1990s.
"We know we cannot sacrifice taste for good nutrition, because kids vote with their feet," said Begalle, who is on site at Bloomingdale High to oversee the new pizza's launch. "How long did McDonald's have the McLean burger?"
Schwan's spent months experimenting with a lower-fat cheese blend that still melted decadently. It finely ground the whole wheat in the crust, so students wouldn't turn up their noses.
Finally, in late October, Schwan's had a product that was ready to debut at Brandon High and three other Hillsborough schools.
This past week, several more tested the pizza, including Bloomingdale. Eventually, Hillsborough wants to see it replace the fresh-delivered pizzas in elementary schools.
"At least if they're getting a slice of pizza, you know they're going to get a milk or a juice with it," Wellings said. "It's a lot better than buying six cookies."
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.
The federal government sets standards by grade level for school meals.
K-5: 483 calories
6-12: 615 calories
K-5: 645 calories
6-12: 819 calories
Hillsborough's leaner cheese pizza
Calories per slice: 400
Fat: 13 grams, 29% of calories
Protein: 23 grams
Dietary fiber: 3 grams