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Some pan reading for pizza

Critics say Pizza Hut's Book It program is unhealthy and too corporate-driven.

Associated Press
Published March 6, 2007


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NEW YORK - You've read the book, now eat the pizza.

Since 1985, that's been the gist of Pizza Hut's Book It, an incentive program used by 50,000 schools nationwide to reward young readers with free pizzas. The program is now under attack by child-development experts who say it promotes bad eating habits and turns teachers into corporate promoters.

Book It, which reaches about 22-million children a year, "epitomizes everything that's wrong with corporate-sponsored programs in school," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

"In the name of education, it promotes junk food consumption to a captive audience ... and undermines parents by positioning family visits to Pizza Hut as an integral component of raising literate children," Linn said.

Last week, Linn's organization called on parents to end their schools' participation in the long-standing program.

Though some activists have previously questioned Book It, Linn said Friday that only after the recent upsurge of concern over child obesity and junk food did her group feel it could make headway with a formal protest campaign. She said many schools are trying to reduce students' access to soda, and contended that Book It should face similar scrutiny.

But the program - which has given away more than 200-million pizzas - has deep roots and many admirers at the highest levels of politics and education. It won a citation in 1988 from President Reagan, and its advisory board includes representatives of prominent education groups, including teachers unions and the American Library Association.

"We're really proud of the program," said Leslie Tubbs, its director for the past five years. "We get hundreds of e-mails from alumni who praise it and say it helped them get started with reading."

Dallas-based Pizza Hut says Book It is the nation's largest reading-motivation program - conducted annually in about 925,000 elementary school classrooms from Oct. 1 through March 31. A two-month program is offered for preschoolers.

Teachers find the program an enjoyable way to build interest in reading, Tubbs said. "We're helping them to do their jobs," she said.

Among the critics of Book It and the broader phenomenon of corporate incursions into schools is Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at Arizona State University.

He described Book It as a "dreadful program" that puts pressure on parents to celebrate with their reward-winning children at Pizza Huts.

"This is corporate America using the schools as a crowbar to get inside the front doors of students' homes," he said. "It's very hard for children whose parents don't want to engage in this to not feel ostracized."

Fast Facts:

A slice of Americana?

Here's how Pizza Hut's 22-year-old reading-motivation program, Book It, works:

Participating teachers set a monthly reading goal for each student; those who meet the goal get a certificate they can redeem at Pizza Hut for a free Personal Pan Pizza. Families often accompany the winners, turning the event into a celebration that can boost business for the restaurant.

[Last modified March 5, 2007, 23:13:49]


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