Education

A slice of nostalgia: Bill aims to give pizza vouchers to St. Paul readers

A group of people of color in business wear pose for a photo
St. Paul Board of Education member Carlo Franco poses for a photo with West Side Boosters Youth Athletic Club executive director Robert Cruz, Slice Brothers Pizza co-owner Adam Kado, state Rep. María Isa Pérez-Vega, and staff from St. Paul Promise Neighborhood following the House Education Finance committee hearing at the Minnesota State Office Building on Thursday.
Feven Gerezgiher | MPR News

Update May 4, 8:28 p.m. | Posted April 4, 7:06 p.m.

For decades, young readers around the country have learned to associate books with pizza. 

Schools nationwide partnered with Pizza Hut Book IT! to reward meeting monthly reading goals with a voucher for a personal pan pizza. The Pizza Hut program — which still exists — celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. 

It evokes a nostalgia in many, including state Rep. María Isa Pérez-Vega, DFL-St. Paul. 

“These are the programs that got us engaged to wanting to go to the library, and wanting to become a part of book clubs and sharing our diverse stories by authors that are written from our communities,” said Pérez-Vega. 

So when a St. Paul youth athletic club and a local pizza shop owner approached her about creating a similar program in her district, she was happy to support. 

On Thursday, Pérez-Vega introduced HF 5091 to the House Education Finance committee. The bill would create the “Slice for St. Paul Kids” literacy incentive program, funding a partnership between West Side Boosters Youth Athletic Club and Slice Brothers Pizza to provide pizza vouchers for students who achieve their reading goals. St. Paul Public Schools and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood are also partners in program implementation. 

“We want to see our kids excel outside of just the field,” she said. 

About half of Minnesota public school students are not meeting state standards in reading, according to data released in 2023. 

Robert Cruz is the executive director for West Side Boosters Youth Athletic Club, a longstanding nonprofit with deep ties in St. Paul’s West Side and surrounding communities.

The club says it serves over 900 youth across several sports, with more than half of participating families receiving reduced or waived registration fees. 

Cruz said many kids struggle academically, and club mentors want to better support their success. The goal is for students to spend more free time reading, sharpening their skills and knowledge base. 

“Just like I tell my kids in sports, it’s a numbers game. The more we do it, the better we will be in our community and getting more educated,” said Cruz. 

Students would receive one voucher upon reading 200 minutes per month, as signed off by a teacher or parent. Vouchers would be redeemable for an 8-inch cheese or pepperoni pizza at either Slice location in St. Paul. 

The restaurant has locations in St. Paul’s Frogtown and downtown neighborhoods, as well as two in Minneapolis and one at the Mall of America.  

Two men wear shirts with a logo shaped like a pizza
Slice Brothers Pizza owners Hosie Thurmond and Adam Kado during construction of the pizzeria's Frogtown location in June 2023.
Courtesy of Adam Kado

“It’s difficult to sell a kid on what reading 10 minutes a day will do for you,” said Adam Kado, co-owner of Slice. “You know, like they need instant gratification, right? So this is about meeting these kids where they’re at.” 

Slice is known for being Minneapolis’ first Black-owned pizzeria — its first location is in a tiny building in northeast — but Kado and co-founder Hosie Thurmond both grew up in St. Paul and graduated from St. Paul high schools. 

“The benefit is not only to these kids, but their greater communities as well. Me being almost somewhat of a case study that I’ve created in St. Paul alone 20 jobs in this past year. So an investment in me as a kid has given return on investment, you know, and what does that look like for the kids?” Kado said. 

West Side Boosters would give Slice $10 for each pizza voucher redeemed. For each voucher, Kado said $1 would go to a scholarship fund in collaboration with the City of St. Paul. 

The program would pilot in five St. Paul schools serving students in kindergarten through grade 8: Maxfield Elementary School, East African Magnet School, Cherokee Elementary School, Riverview elementary school and Humboldt secondary school. The schools serve about 1,500 students in total.  

Advocates hope the program would expand to include more schools in St. Paul and beyond in the future. 

The bill seeks a one-time appropriation of $350,000 for the program over two years. Funds would cover the cost of pizza, voucher printing and general program administration.  

In the committee meeting, state Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, said he liked the proposal, yet raised caution about the program’s exclusive contract with Slice over other pizza shops and the transparency of the proposed scholarship fund. 

“I think it’s a very creative idea. I just see lots of loose ends here,” Kresha said. 

Other legislators commended the local partnership. 

“When you said the BOOK IT! program, I like tasted the pepperoni personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut in my mouth,” said Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura, DFL-Minneapolis, with a laugh. “And so I remember that. So it’s very much in support and would love to talk about how to do something similar in Minneapolis.” 

The bill was laid over and may be included in a house education finance bill. 

St. Paul Public Schools already has a range of reading initiatives, according to SPPS communications director Erica Wacker. It launched SPPS Reads last year as a districtwide effort to improve literacy rates.

Every school in the district also has some type of reading challenge or initiative, including readathons where classes that read the most can win a pajama or pizza party. 

Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program currently has about 3,900 Minnesota schools enrolled, according to Pizza Hut spokesperson Annie Worthington. SPPS could not confirm how many of its schools are in the Pizza Hut program. 

Correction (May 4, 2024): An earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura’s name. The story has been updated.

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