The triangular piece of oh-so-gooey goodness. How the glorious cheese stretches into spectacular spindles as it is lifted to your mouth. How the sauce spreads out evenly so that your mouth is blessed with wonderful tangy flavor on each bite. How the toppings so expertly placed go so well within the triangular piece of awesome.
And the dough… so chewy it’s addicting, inviting you to take bite after bite.
Simply put, pizza is perfect. It’s essential to an American’s way of life, but it may be negatively impacting the health of Long Beach youth.
In Michelle Obama’s years as the First Lady, she made a push to combat these negative impacts. She promoted healthier school lunches which resulted in changes to school nutrition standards in 2012. These new standards required school meals to meet new whole wheat requirements, monitor sodium content and include milk and fruit options.
So how did these new standards affect Long Beach schools?
I saw kids throw away perfectly good fruit and milk while enjoying the altered, healthier versions of burritos, mozzarella sticks, soft tacos, and more.
During snack time, while some had a healthy snack with fruits, you also had kids who huddled around the one person with Hot Cheetos, asking if they could have some.
The possible loopholes were too obvious.
Seeing this, one could have a problem with Michelle Obama’s approach. Kids were eating the altered meals, but the nutrition lessons from teachers were not cutting through. There was still unhealthy choices being made despite receiving lessons advising against them.
Contributors to this dilemma include economic status, bad habits, and lack of enforcement. Low-income families are less likely to have access to healthier options that may cost more. In addition, no matter the economic status, bad habits are hard to break and the high access to unhealthy foods makes it harder.
And now unhealthy foods may become more accessible, as President Trump has announced plans to allow schools to cut back the number of fruits and vegetables included in meals.
The effects of unhealthy foods can be seen in the map below, with data collected from the California Health Interview Survey, which examined obesity rates of youth between the ages of 12 and 17. The darker blue indicates higher teen obesity rates, which are mostly present in West, Central, and North Long Beach.
More than 63% of youth in Central and North Long Beach have obesity:
Teen obesity rates are highest in North and West Long Beach. In addition, 46.7% of youth between the ages of 12 to 17 in the Long Beach 90805 zip code are obese. In comparison, teen obesity in the Los Alamitos zip code of 90720, near East Long Beach, is 16.7%.
Why does a historically underinvested area of Long Beach have such high obesity rates compared to Los Alamitos? The answer is access.
Fast Food around Long Beach Poly:
Fast Food around Los Alamitos High School:
(You can see this school is surrounded by less fast food joints compared to Poly.
The map above compares the number of establishments where students have access to unhealthy food around Long Beach Polytechnic High School (top) and Los Alamitos High School. Based on these maps there are more establishments to obtain unhealthy food from near Long Beach Polytechnic High School than Los Alamitos High School.
Due to this, Poly High students are more likely to visit these places to eat, some of which may not be appropriate for a healthy diet.
As a company selling food in schools, Domino’s Pizza had to conform to these new standards and as a result, the “Smart Slice” was born. Served in Long Beach schools, this slice has 1⁄3 less fat in the pepperoni, 1⁄3 less salt in the sauce, and has cheese with half the fat a typical slice does.
While healthier, serving this pizza in schools is also advertising the Domino’s Pizza brand, and kids cannot get this recipe outside of the school. This approach still promoted unhealthy brands because kids could not take this healthier option home. Domino’s Pizza is just one slice of the obesity problem in Long Beach because it promoted unhealthy diets.
Of course, there are various factors leading to this development — such as poor nutritional health knowledge and bad eating habits. But a big culprit here is the continued advertisement of brands in schools. The Smart Slice being introduced into schools continues exactly that.
Brands utilize the advertising technique of repetition to build identity and customer awareness. Paired with the spending power students have at this age, the strategy causes students to be more inclined to buy from that brands they are exposed to.
And in turn, being frequently exposed to a pizza brand may lower a student’s nutritional awareness. After some time, one may not have a second thought about it being unhealthy.
This becomes problematic because Domino’s is not the only brand capitalizing on the chance to influence students. Other brands, such as Hot Cheetos, have also altered their recipes so that they meet school standards and can be served in schools, and therefore, built customer loyalty, contributing to the childhood obesity that Michelle Obama intended to combat.
So while Michelle Obama’s strategy of altering nutritional standards was a good step toward fighting childhood obesity, it could only have done so much. And now, we won’t even have those standards! Surely, the problem can only get worse.
We need more health education in high school — when students begin to exert their spending power and exposure to brands are at their highest. Continuing health education brings more awareness to students about health and can encourage better eating habits.