It’s a nearly universal experience for U.S. kids: You go to the grocery store with your parent or guardian, come across the wall of colorful Lunchables packages and beg for a box, holding up the “Nachos with Cheese Dip and Salsa” or the “Chicken Dunks” with puppy eyes and a pouted bottom lip.
At least at my elementary school, Lunchables were an enviable item, much like Sillybandz or Smencils. While some of us may have enjoyed the packaged, finger-food meals as an occasional treat throughout our childhoods, today’s kids may begin to eat them daily. Lunchables will soon be served by school lunch programs across the United States.
The Kraft Heinz Company, the company behind Lunchables, will be offering new, specially formulated “Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers” and “Extra Cheesy Pizza” Lunchables to school administrators for purchase beginning with the 2023–2024 school year. While the ingredients were altered to satisfy federal nutrition regulations, their supposed “nutrition” is still laughable. The pizza option is described as containing 1/8 cup of red-orange vegetables, which one can only assume is the tomato sauce that comes in a clear plastic pouch. Lunchables may be a fun and desirable treat for kids, but they shouldn’t become a cafeteria staple.
The debate surrounding U.S. school lunches has been making headlines for decades. In 1981, former President Ronald Reagan’s administration attempted to reduce funding for children’s nutrition funding by $1.5 billion. The significant budget cut resulted in new school lunch program requirements that allowed ketchup to be designated as a vegetable. In 2011, Congress ruled that the tomato paste on pizza served for school lunch would continue to count as a vegetable.
Former First Lady Michelle Obama championed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which improved nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program and faced significant controversy. Some of these rules were later relaxed by former President Donald Trump’s administration.
Admittedly, there are many reasons why school administrators may be inclined to pass out Lunchables in the cafeteria line. School meal programs are facing staffing shortages, food supplies are getting more expensive and supply chain issues have led to menu item shortages and delayed deliveries. However, when it comes to school lunches, we should avoid cutting corners whenever possible.
School lunches improve children’s dietary intake, reduce obesity rates and create better learning environments. Beyond the school gates, children may regularly consume high-fat and high-sugar foods. Over one-third of children and adolescents consume fast food on a given day and obtain about 17% of their calories from added sugars. Since kids eat between 35% and 40% of their daily calories at school, it’s important that the majority of these calories come from healthy foods.
The need for healthy lunch options is especially dire at schools with disadvantaged populations. The percentage of kids who eat fruit on any given day increases with family income. Additionally, lower-socioeconomic-status schools are significantly less likely to regularly offer salads, and majority Black or Latino schools are significantly less likely to offer fresh fruit. More than a quarter of low-income households are food insecure, and Black and Hispanic households are more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity. Failing to provide all students with nourishing school lunches will inevitably harm some communities more than others.
Believe it or not, bringing lunch from home is often not a healthy alternative to school cafeteria food. Packed lunches brought to school by pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students were found to have more calories, fat and sugar than those in school lunches.
That being said, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is some significant progress being made in bringing healthy food into schools. New nutrition standards aim to decrease the amount of added sugar and sodium in school meals and increase whole-grain-rich options.
The introduction of Lunchables to cafeteria lunch lines is a setback in the fight for healthy school lunches. Parents who are concerned about their children’s diets should advocate for more investment in school meal nutrition, express their worries to local school authorities and encourage their children to develop healthy eating habits. Though kids allured by DIY pizzas and colorful packaging may see Lunchables as desirable, the potential consequences of eating them daily are not.
Abigail Tuschman is a junior from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. majoring in Writing Seminars and Natural Sciences. She is the Opinions Editor for The News-Letter.