In March, a stomach-churning headline appeared in the news: “Lunchables may soon be available in a school cafeteria near you.”
Kraft Heinz, the Big Food company that produces ultra-processed snacks like “Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker” and “Extra Cheesy Pizza” Lunchables, has announced a modification of the ingredients of those two products to meet National School Lunch Program guidelines. Recipe changes claim to include “more protein and whole grains,” as well as “reduced saturated fat and sodium, and an increased serving size” (NBC News). Schools will be able to buy the two Lunchables offerings for the 2023–24 school year.
Marion Nestle, acclaimed public health advocate and nutritionist, wrote a response piece on her Food Politics blog, detailing the ingredient lists and product reformulation of Kraft Heinz. Succinctly, she writes, “It’s still ultra-processed. How about serving kids real food?”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest announced its disapproval of this move, writing that these “copycat” products will harm school nutrition programs, could potentially replace the hot meals which are a lifeline for 30+ million children, and increase kids’ exposure to cancer-causing ingredients.
This is a concerning move for school food and nutrition. In February, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced several proposed updates to USDA school meal standards. Though taking only a small step forward, Wellness in the Schools was glad to see new proposed guidelines that recommend limiting added sugars in school meals for the very first time, limiting sodium, and increasing whole grains. Wellness in the School’s core philosophy is that scratch-cooked school meals will naturally limit additives and ultra-processed ingredients and provide school children with the nutrients they need to grow, develop, and learn in and out of the classroom.
Wellness in the Schools supports strengthening nutrition standards for school meals and is opposed to the inclusion of Lunchables to the school lunch menu, thus issuing the following statement in response:
“At a time when we should be pushing for more scratch-cooked meals, the rollout of Lunchables in schools weakens school nutrition and has the potential to manipulate and confound children and families. Food marketing in schools imprints the product on the brains of students, raising the odds that when they go grocery shopping with their caregivers they will seek out the product, which does not have the same nutritional profile as the items served in schools. Food brand names have no place in marketing to children in schools. To avoid making school food an avenue for increased risk of obesity the USDA should bar any branding on healthier products that are not widely available outside of school.”
–Alexina Cather, MPH | Director of Policy and Special Projects, Wellness in the Schools