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Kraft Heinz’s move to get its ready-to-eat packaged Lunchables into school cafeterias starting this fall has drawn pushback from parent groups and nutrition advocates due to concerns over adding processed, branded foods to school menus.
Kraft’s two SKUs entering the program — “Lunchables Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers” and “Lunchables Extra Cheesy Pizza” — have been reformulated to comply with federal nutrition guidelines under the National School Lunch Program. The versions aren’t being sold at grocers.
The Lunchables will be available in cafeterias for purchase and as part of the free school lunch program. Under the NSLP program, schools receive cash subsidies for each eligible meal they serve. Studies have shown that American kids get their healthiest meals at school, thanks to federal requirements.
For schools, the program promises labor and cost savings, including not requiring freezing, and that they’re “great for field trips, summer school, dinner programs,” according to Kraft marketing material. Finicky young tastebuds may also be won over with Kraft claiming Lunchables are “among the most loved U.S. brands by kids” with 93% awareness.
For Kraft, the initiative, first disclosed in February, helps tap the educational foodservice channel that’s seen as an untapped $25 billion market. The Kraft brand also gets in front of a new generation of consumers.
“The kids have it and then they go to retail and they see it,” Carlos Abrams-Rivera, Kraft’s head of North America who will take over as CEO in 2024, recently told the Wall Street Journal. “[It’s] a penetration machine.”
Introduced in 1988, Lunchables has become a billion-dollar business with its appeal to both kids and busy parents, but it has also faced critics.
“Lunchables was really kind of the first item in the grocery store that brought the fast-food industry into the supermarket,” Michael Moss, the investigative journalist and author of “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” told FreightWaves. “You really didn’t have stuff in the supermarket that you could just rip open, walk out of the supermarket and eat walking down the street if you wanted to.”
Kraft has committed in recent years to reducing sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and calories across its products. In August, Kraft announced Lunchables would be sold in produce aisles for the first time in a partnership with Fresh Del Monte to add fresh fruit to meals.
The Wall Street Journal notes that since the Lunchables school initiative was first proposed in February, more than 100 people have submitted letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture expressing concerns.
“The Lunchables on the cafeteria line are different from what’s in the grocery store,” Sam Hahn, a policy coordinator for school foods at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Ad Age. “But kids don’t know that, and it could lead them to associate this with what’s in the grocery store.”
“As much as everyone would love to be doing entirely scratch cooking in school cafeterias, that is not gonna be a reality for most schools across the nation for a very long time,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the nonprofit School Nutrition Association, told Business Insider. “There’s just not the equipment, the labor, the facilities to accommodate that level of scratch cooking.”