Lunches in school canteens worry child nutrition experts

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Lunchables, popular prepackaged meals for kids and 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 bags or lunch 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 federal nutrition guidelines established for the National School Lunch Program, which provides meals for nearly 30 million children across the country.

The company says the two offerings — turkey and cheese, as well as pizza — are distinct from products sold in grocery stores, revamped to increase portion sizes and reduce saturated fat and sodium.

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

Donna Martin, director of the school nutrition program for Burke County, Georgia, 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 to prepare delicious, healthy meals and not just provide students with lunch because they have no equipment or labor,” she said.

How to get kids to eat a healthy lunch? Give them some control.

Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, said Lunchables’ approval indicates bigger issues with federal guidelines. “Having a processed, packaged food meet school meal standards is part of what needs to change in the national school meal programme,” she said.

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

Dariush Mozaffarian, cardiologist and professor at Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition, said he wouldn’t have a problem with Lunchables – if they didn’t include processed meat or high levels of sodium. 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 stroke and diabetes, he added.

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

The School-Ready Lunchable Turkey, which includes crackers, sliced ​​turkey and cheddar cheese, comes in a 3.5-ounce serving and has 270 calories, 930 mg of sodium, 15 grams of fat, and 16 grams of proteins. Federal dietary guidelines recommend that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day, and recommended levels for children are even lower.

The five-ounce pizza version is made with crackers, cheese and a packet of tomato sauce and has 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, announced last month that it would impose new guidelines over the next few years that will further limit sodium, emphasize whole grains and limit sugar. Efforts to tighten nutrition standards, however, have met with resistance from some Republican lawmakers and industry groups.

Lunchables aren’t the only branded food items students may encounter at school. Packaged foods offered in cafeterias include cereals from General Mills and Kellogg’s, although their formulas are modified from the grocery store versions to be less sweet and higher in whole grains to meet federal standards. But some experts find such an offer problematic.

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

Kraft Heinz, however, uses its brand name as a selling point for new products, claiming it is “among America’s most beloved brands by kids” and has “93% awareness”.

And Martin worried that the low-sodium, low-fat formulations of Lunchables served at school could confuse parents and children into thinking the grocery store versions are just as healthy.

Still, they are likely to appeal to understaffed school districts. The School Nutrition Association, a school food trade group, recently conducted a survey of its members which revealed that almost 93% of school nutrition programs had difficulty with staff, which is considered key to the type kitchen scratches that can reduce sodium in breakfasts. Diane Pratt-Heavner, the group’s media relations director, said as fast food and other restaurants have raised wages in this tight labor market, it’s 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 replace the alternative. “If there is a shortage of staff, staff may focus on the hot meal, and that could be an option,” she said. Kraft Heinz is an “Industry Partner” of the School Nutrition Association.

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

“These are products that could be used in an emergency situation, but hopefully they won’t become the norm in school lunches,” 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 are wasteful.

Even if a cafeteria serves lunchables, not all students will receive them. Schools are required to serve students half a cup of fruit or vegetables, as well as low-fat milk.

But Kraft Heinz may soon enter this sector as well. “Beyond entering cafeterias, Lunchables is testing the concept of adding fruit to retail SKUs later this year, with the potential to expand nationwide in 2024,” said said a company representative in an email.

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