Kraft Heinz has successfully integrated ready-to-eat packaged Lunchables into school lunch programs starting this fall in a major new initiative. But the company had to reformulate the ingredients to ensure the products met federal guidelines first.
A Kraft Heinz ( KHC ) executive announced last month that the company is preparing to deliver packaged ready-to-eat Lunchable kids’ meals directly to students by placing them in school cafeterias.
Carlos Abrams-Rivera, executive vice president of Kraft Heinz, said two new varieties of Lunchables (separate from Lunchables sold in grocery stores), with “enhanced nutrition” that comply with National School Lunch Program requirements, will be served at K- 12 schools nationwide, starting this fall.
While Abrams-Rivera, speaking at the Consumer Analyst Group’s annual conference in New York City on Feb. 21, did not elaborate on the specific Lunchable products headed to schools, a company website appeared to show off the new products.
Kraft Heinz described on its website, Kraft Heinz Away From Home, the Lunchable products that it said are “made for schools” and “now meet NSLP guidelines” (National Lunch Program). Founded in 1946, NSLP provides lunch daily to nearly 30 million students in public and nonprofit private schools and child care facilities.
Information posted on Kraftheinzawayfromhome.com describes two products – “Lunchables Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers” and “Lunchables Extra Cheesy Pizza” – as new for the 2023-24 school year and made for lunch “but also great for field trips. summer school and dinner programs. One of the main selling points for schools is that School Lunchables do not need to be frozen, but kept in the fridge, “minimizing [school] needs and labor costs”.
The package for the Turkey Cheddar Lunchable option is described as a 3.5 oz container. The document said it contains the equivalent of 2 ounces of MMA (meat/meat alternative), the equivalent of one ounce of grains, and “meets the NSLP’s criteria for being rich in whole grains.”
The extra-cheesy pizza option comes in a 5.05-ounce container and contains 2 ounces of MMA equivalents, 2 ounces of grain equivalents, 1/8 cup red/orange vegetable and “meets the NSLP’s criteria for being rich in whole grains.”
The USDA referred CNNBusiness to Kraft Heinz for more details on the cost and nutritional content of Lunchables for Schools. Kraft Heinz declined to provide additional details on cost and other nutritional content, including sodium and saturated fat content.
The idea to roll out Lunchables to schools and potentially have schools provide them directly to students comes amid new proposed changes to school food guidelines by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federally supported school meal program.
The proposed changes are aimed at reducing the levels of added sugars and sodium in school lunches. The standards would gradually lower sodium limits over several school years.
While school lunches are paid for by local and federal funding, the standards for what goes on a child’s cafeteria tray are set by the USDA.
The agency’s job is to ensure that every meal served at the school is nutritious and meets the US Dietary Guidelines. Schools are required to offer students five meal components – fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and milk – and students must get at least three (and one must be a fruit or vegetable) as part of their lunch.
Lauren Au, an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Nutrition who studies the effectiveness of school meal programs, said she would like to know the sodium, saturated fat and added sugars content of the reformulated Lunchables to determine if they are a beneficial addition to the school . meals.
“Research shows that high sodium intake over time will increase the risk of high blood pressure and other diseases,” said Au. “The concern is also that young children exposed to high-sodium packaged foods early in life could develop a lifelong preference for high-sodium foods.”
The Lunchable Turkey & Cheddar Cheese with Crackers (3.2 oz.) tray sold at Target, for example, contains 740 mg of sodium in one serving size. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults should limit sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day — equal to about 1 teaspoon of table salt. For children under 14, the recommended limits are even lower.
Au said the cost of Lunchables for schools interested in getting them is another factor that would come into play. “From a cost perspective, I would be concerned that these might be more expensive than the meals that are currently available and offered in the NSLP,” he said.
Meghan Maroney, campaign manager for federal child nutrition programs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said “Kraft Heinz has been pushing this for some time in school and state organizations,” she said.
Maroney said she is also interested in learning about the full nutritional makeup of the two Lunchable products to see if they fully meet the current and recommended NSLP nutritional guidelines.
“Also, if the products are reformulated to meet NSLP guidelines, they will taste different than Lunchables sold in stores due to lower sodium, saturated fat and other requirements. That can be confusing for kids,” Maroney said.
But offering Lunchables in school cafeterias may be welcome in some school districts facing higher food costs and labor shortages, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a 50,000-member trade group that represents school service providers. food.
“As school nutrition guidelines become more complex, we’ve seen companies leave the K-12 segment, Pratt-Heavner said. “It’s good to see a company interested in selling into this segment. But I would see Lunchables as one of two meal options, not that schools are getting away with offering a daily hot meal option.”
Kraft Heinz is a partner of the School Nutrition Association.
– CNN’s Jen Christensen contributed to this story