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Lunchables in school cafeterias have child-nutrition experts concerned

(Washington Post illustration; Sandy Huffaker/Corbis/Getty Images; iStock)

Lunchables, the popular prepackaged meals aimed at kids and the time-pressed parents tasked with feeding them, have been a staple on school cafeteria tables for decades. But now, some of them won’t arrive from home in lunch sacks or boxes — the brand is offering a version of the product to be served by the cafeteria itself.

Kraft Heinz, the company that makes them, has developed two styles of Lunchables that meet the federal nutritional guidelines set out for the National School Lunch Program, which provides meals to nearly 30 million kids across the country.

The company says the two offerings — turkey and cheese, as well as pizza — are distinct from the products sold in grocery stores, retooled to increase the serving size and reduce saturated fats and sodium.

The meals could appeal to schools that are struggling with labor shortages in cafeterias and supply chain kinks that have limited their menu options. But many nutrition experts greeted the news with a heaping side of skepticism.

Donna Martin, the director of the school nutrition program for Burke County, Ga., says the very reasons Lunchables might appeal to administrators should be warning signs that school cafeterias are underfunded. “School nutrition programs need to be reimbursed at a rate that they can scratch-cook delicious, healthy meals and not just provide the students a Lunchable because they don’t have equipment or labor,” she said.

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Katie Wilson, the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, said the approval of Lunchables points to bigger problems with federal guidelines. “The fact that a processed, packaged food meets school lunch standards is part of what needs to change in the national school lunch program,” she said.

School programs might be tempted to rely on already assembled products like Lunchables to meet those standards, she said. “The micromanagement of the administrative review pushes districts to use overly processed, packaged food because it will help ensure that they meet all the details of the administrative review,” Wilson said.

Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and professor at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, said he wouldn’t have a problem with Lunchables — if they didn’t include processed meat or high sodium levels. The World Health Organization considers products such as sandwich meats, hot dogs and bacon to be “Group 1” carcinogens, the same category as cigarettes and asbestos, he noted. And they increase the risk of other health problems such as strokes and diabetes, he added.

Mozaffarian also said the sodium levels in such products — even if they meet current standards — are too high.

The school-ready turkey Lunchable, which includes crackers, turkey and cheddar cheese slices, comes in a 3.5-ounce portion and contains 270 calories, 930 mg of sodium, 15 grams of fat and 16 grams of protein. Federal dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium daily, and the recommended levels for children are even lower.

The five-ounce pizza version is composed of crackers, cheese and a packet of tomato sauce and contains 330 calories, 700 mg of sodium, 13 grams of fat and 16 grams of protein.

The Department of Agriculture, which administers the national school lunch program, last month announced that it would impose new guidelines over the next several years that will further limit sodium, emphasize whole grains and restrict sugar. Efforts to tighten nutritional standards, though, have met with resistance from some Republican lawmakers and from industry groups.

Lunchables aren’t the only name-brand food product students might encounter at school. Packaged foods offered in cafeterias include cereals from General Mills and Kellogg’s, although their formulas are altered from the grocery store versions to be less sugary and higher in whole grains to meet the federal standards. But some experts find any such offering problematic.

“Offering branded packaged food to children through the National School Lunch Program essentially allows food companies to market directly to children with the added credibility that comes with associating their product with schools,” said Kendrin Sonneville, an associate professor of nutritional science at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “Kraft Heinz stands to gain immensely from this collaboration in the short term through direct sales and in the long term through increased brand recognition and loyalty.”

Kraft Heinz, though, is using its brand name as a selling point for the new products, touting that it is “among the most loved U.S. brands by kids” and has “93% brand awareness.”

And Martin worried that the lower-sodium and lower-fat formulations of Lunchables served at school might confuse parents and kids into thinking that the versions in the grocery store are just as healthy.

Still, they are likely to appeal to staff-strapped school districts. The School Nutrition Association, a school food trade group, recently conducted a survey of its members that found nearly 93 percent of school nutrition programs were struggling with staffing, which is considered key to the kind of scratch cooking that can lower the sodium in lunches. Diane Pratt-Heavner, the group’s director of media relations, said that as fast-food and other restaurants have increased wages in this tight labor market, it has been harder to retain cafeteria staff.

Pratt-Heavner noted that most schools offer a hot meal as well as an alternative option, such as a deli sandwich. A product like Lunchables, she said, is more likely to stand in for the alternate. “If there’s a staffing shortage, it might be that the staff would focus on the hot meal, and this might be an option,” she said. Kraft Heinz is an “industry partner” of the School Nutrition Association.

The company is marketing the school-ready Lunchables as meals that can go beyond the cafeteria. “Also great for field trips, summer programs, dinner programs,” its sales materials read. A representative for the company would not disclose their cost.

“These are products that could be used in an emergency situation, but I certainly hope they don’t become the norm in school meals,” Wilson said. “What message are we sending our children about healthy eating?”

And then there’s the packaging — plastic trays and wrappers — which some critics say is wasteful.

Even if a cafeteria serves Lunchables, that won’t be all students receive. Schools are required to serve students a half-cup of fruits or vegetables, along with reduced-fat milk.

But Kraft Heinz soon could be getting into that business, too. “Beyond its entrance into cafeterias, Lunchables is concept-testing the addition of fruits into retail SKUs later this year, with the potential to scale nationally in 2024,” a company representative said in an email.