Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What's for Lunch: Marvin Schwan's Pizza

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

What could this 10-year-old eating lunch in a grade-school cafeteria in the District of Columbia possibly have to do with a 23-year-old guy delivering ice cream in rural Minnesota?

The answer, of course, is the pizza the girl is eating. It came from a multi-billion company started by Marvin Schwan, who broke into the food business in 1952 schlepping ice cream in an old panel truck out of Marshall, MN.

Today, according to the company's website, Schwan's Food has a presence in some 50 countries and employs more than 17,000 people. And it's still privately owned. Marvin Schwan was known as the "emperor of ice cream" when he died of a heart attack at age 64. But along the way, he built a diverse empire on the principles of feeding frozen convenience foods to the masses.

In 1970, the company placed a simple ad in the Wall Street Journal: "Wanted: Frozen Pizza Manufacturer." The result was Schwan's purchase of the Tony's brand pizza and its manufacturing facility in Salina, KS. That's a Tony's pizza the girl in the picture is eating.

Today, Schwan's has pizza plants in England, France and Germany as well as in the U.S. It also claims to be the world's largest maker of egg rolls.

It does seem a bit ironic that some companies are getting extraordinarily rich in part by selling frozen convenience foods to schools that say they're too poor to feed kids real food. Pizza is, hands down, the favorite food of American school children. This one arrives frozen in 28-pound boxes of neat little rectangular slices. Just 15 to 20 minutes in a 375-degree convection oven and the pizzas are ready to serve.

Here, according to one of those boxes, is what the pizzas are made of:

"Crust: Enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, defatted soy four, yeast, contains 2% or less of soybean oil, isolate soy protein, sugar, GDL (glucono-delta-lactone, DATEM, sodium bicarbonate, salt, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, dough conditioner (wheat starch, L-cysteine hydrochloride, ammonium sulfate);

"Topping: Low moisture part-skim mozzarella cheese (cultured pasteurized part-skim milk, salt, enzymes);

"Sauce: Tomatoes (water, tomato paste [not less than 28% soluble solids]), modified food starch, sugar, contains 2% or less of dextrose, salt, spices, onion, dehydrated romano cheese (sheep's and cow's milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), garlic powder, paprika, citric acid, beet powder."

These pizzas are engineered at the factory to meet school meal specifications. Each 4.69-ounce portion of cheese pizza "provides 2 oz. equivalent meat/meat alternate, 2 1/2 servings of bread alternate, and 1/8 cup vegetable for the Child Nutrition Meal Pattern Requirements."

Schwan's is on the government list of 112 companies authorized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to turn raw "commodity" food products donated by the federal government to its school meals program into finished processed foods that schools can serve directly to kids. That gives Shwan's fairly exclusive access to some 31 million children who eat a federally-subsidized school lunch every day.

Welcome to the business of school food.


  1. The Food Lobby and school lunch
    Schwann's is in there....

  2. so school food = big business.
    That is going to be hard to change, it will have a domino affect.

  3. I think information like this on the ingredients in our kids' food is incredibly important. Our district also 'donates' its USDA commodity mozzarella to Schwan's for the privilege of then paying for it to be processed into frozen pizzas that are served as often as once a week. They are relatively popular. The "Harvest Pizza" is one example - 830mg of sodium in a serving and no less than 83 ingredients! We're trying to post our school's ingredients in the lunch every day at Using this pizza as an example, we've made some progress with our district and a local vendor to make healthier, better tasting pizzas for the school for next fall.

  4. I just watched a video of Ann Cooper from 2007, one of the things she said that stuck with me the most is that she believes that the CDC should be in charge of School Lunches if the federal Government is to stay in charge.

  5. I suppose you could do worse with the ingredients, but that isn't to say, you couldn't do much, much better. Would it really cost more to make pizza without all the chemicals? I doubt it.