Pizza Hut program encourages students to read and rewards them with free pizza—oh my!

Pizza Hut program encourages students to read and rewards them with free pizza—oh my!

Here’s some horrible news: Two weeks ago Pizza Hut announced the winners of its annual Book It! program, which encourages schools to set reading goals for students and rewards winning classrooms in the “All-Star Reader” sweepstakes with some lovely prizes.

Ten classrooms from around the country were chosen as winners because all their students met the reading goals of the six-month Book It! program.

The lovely prizes included two $500 airline gift cards for each classroom teacher, one $100 Barnes and Noble gift card for classroom use and a selection of Book It! incentive items.

The reason this is horrible news is that the other lovely prize was a $15 Pizza Hut [2] gift card for each student in the classroom.

It’s horrible because it encourages children to eat pizza and get fat, according to critics of the program.

Yes, there are critics of a program that encourages children to read.

One of them is the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, whose co-founder, psychologist Susan Linn, said this to the Associated Press: “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.”

Another critic is Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at Arizona State University, who’s really in a lather over Book It! The AP quoted him as calling it a “dreadful program” because it pressures parents into celebrating with their kids at Pizza Hut. Author Alfie Kohn, who wrote “Punished By Rewards,” said the program gets kids interested in reading only as a way to win a free pizza.

This protest should come as no surprise. If ever there were a time to blame a restaurant-sponsored reading program for getting kids to eat pizza and thereby contributing to childhood obesity, the time is now. It’s the popular thing to do.

The critics make it sound as if the winning students never have eaten pizza before, and that their first trip to Pizza Hut will turn them into cheese-and-pepperoni addicts.

Somehow, I just can’t agree.

An incentive for reading will not force kids to eat pizza. They already do. They eat burgers, fries, onion rings and ice cream, too, even if they never crack open a book.

Pizza Hut says more than 22 million students enroll in the program every year. Not all of them meet the reading goals the teachers set, but if they only finish a third of the books they’re still more literate than when they started out.

Kohn was quoted as saying that kids will choose easier books to read just to get through the program faster. Well, so what if it’s an easy book? It can still stimulate thought. S.J. Perelman, the writer who made all other writers feel as if they were not in the same business as he was, was an avid reader of pulp magazines. He said they gave him ideas for stories.

Consider, too, that every minute a student is reading a book is a minute away from playing a videogame, possibly a violent one. That by itself is a benefit of the program.

Yes, Pizza Hut is using Book It! to get families into its restaurants. Why not? As long as the families are going out to eat anyway, Pizza Hut might as well try to keep them from going to the competition. That’s smart marketing.

The real critics of the program should be Papa John’s [3], Domino’s [4] and every other pizza chain, which should call for an immediate halt to Book It! on the basis that they didn’t think of it first.