Pizza Hut reading program criticized

Associated Press
Marine Pfc. Brett Paettie reads to second-graders at Good Shepherd Episcopal School in Dallas as part of Pizza Hut's Book It program. Supporters say it encourages children to read.

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," Dr. Linn said.

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

She 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.

But the program has 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.

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.

At Strafford Elementary School in Strafford, Mo., the roughly 500 pupils collectively read 30,000 books a year with Book It's help, Principal Lucille Cogdill said.

"I don't have any negative things at all to say about it," Ms. Cogdill said. "I know there's concern about obesity, but Book It is not causing it, and the schools aren't causing it."

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

"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 who don't want to engage in this to not feel ostracized."

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