How Lunchables Ended Up on School Lunch Trays

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
A student eats Lunchables during lunch at Pembroke Elementary School.

PEMBROKE, N.C. – In his school’s vast, cacophonous lunchroom, Raylen Locklear stacked his Lunchables the way he has seen it done on YouTube, the same way he does it at home.

“Well, you put the cookie down first,” the second-grader said, setting out the cracker that comes in a brightly labeled package offered free to every student in Robeson County schools. “You put a ham,” he said, misidentifying the pinkish slice of turkey, a bit larger than a poker chip. “You put some cheese and then you put another cookie, and then you put the rest of the cheese.”

Soon, the Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker was too tall for Raylen to fit in his mouth. He undertook quick renovations before scarfing it down. “The ham is protein, and it’s good,” he noted. He said he’d heard that on YouTube as well.

Decisions made 350 miles away in the nation’s capital – choices heavily influenced by the food industry – brought Kraft Heinz’s signature Lunchables to Raylen’s cafeteria table at Pembroke Elementary School this fall. For the first time, Lunchables are eligible to be served to nearly 30 million children under the rules of the National School Lunch Program after the company altered two of its products to qualify.

The weak standards that govern federally subsidized school lunches illustrate the power of the food industry in Congress and the outsize influence of food companies on the School Nutrition Association, which represents 50,000 school lunch personnel. While many nations have adopted more-nutritious school meals and stricter advertising standards, pizza sauce and french fries still count as vegetables for schoolchildren in the United States, and U.S. food companies remain virtually free to advertise to youngsters any way they like.

Together, these circumstances contribute to the country’s harrowing childhood obesity problem: Nearly 20 percent of children are obese, a rate nearly four times what it was in the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and much higher than those in most other countries. The rates are worse for Black, Latino and Native American children, who make up the majority of students in Robeson County classrooms, and for low-income children across the United States, who eat most of the nearly 5 billion lunches served by the federal program each year.

More than a decade after the last major overhaul of school nutrition standards, the Agriculture Department is proposing to further restrict sodium in school lunches and added sugar in cereals, flavored milks, desserts and yogurt, starting in fall of 2025 – despite some objections from industry representatives, congressional Republicans and the School Nutrition Association.

“Lunchables being approved for school food is a symptom of the greater problem,” said Carolyn Villa, the food services director for Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District, who threw away samples that Kraft Heinz sent her over the summer. “Any of these regulations that are implemented to try to improve health and lifetime-wellness outcomes for children are manipulated and bent to afford profitability for large food manufacturers.”

According to its own estimates, Kraft Heinz sees a $25 billion growth opportunity in the school lunch market, where the company has access to generations of future customers. The company noted in a May investor update that the rollout of Lunchables in schools has resulted in media exposure that was “99% positive/neutral” while it cost the marketing team virtually nothing.

“American parents already pack Lunchables for their kids’ lunches, so bringing Lunchables to school cafeterias makes sense for parents, kids and for the brand,” Kraft Heinz spokeswoman Lynsey Elve said in a statement.

Amy Deal, mother of Raylen Locklear, said she was pleased to learn that Robeson County schools are offering the same fare free that she had been buying from the store. “It’s a time saver, but it’s also a healthy snack,” she said. “It’s things that he likes.”

Nutrition experts criticized the addition of ultra-processed options to the school lunch menu. Studies have suggested a link between ultra-processed food – industrially produced using additives that make food hyper-palatable – and obesity as well as chronic disease. The rate of premature deaths linked to obesity more than doubled in the last two decades for people 35 to 64 years old, according to a Washington Post analysis of CDC death records.

“Processed foods arbitrarily classified as ‘ultra-processed’ are not necessarily less nutritious,” Elve said. “The classification of foods should be based on scientific evidence that includes an assessment of the nutritional value of the whole product, not restricted to one element such as a single ingredient or the level of processing.”

Kraft Heinz would not reveal the number of districts purchasing Lunchables this school year. The Post spoke with more than 40 school districts. Many, such as New York City and Houston, said they would not serve Lunchables, citing high sodium and other nutritional reasons. Miami-Dade County and several smaller districts expressed interest. North Kansas City, Mo., said it would have purchased the product but decided it was too expensive after being quoted $2.32 per package – more than half the roughly $4 per lunch that public schools are allotted to pay for food, labor and supplies.

Lunchables, Robeson officials acknowledge, are more processed than food prepared by their kitchen staffs. The turkey contains 14 ingredients – including additives for flavor, texture and shelf life. But Lunchables are an option that officials say many children will happily consume.

“It’s a tightrope, trying to get that balance,” said Harrison Branch, a school nutrition services supervisor for the Robeson district. “We know a lot of kids don’t like the hot meals, the scratch meals. They may lean to the side of something they’re more familiar getting at home. . . . That’s why I was grateful for the Lunchables coming in, so we got some other choices.”

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Charlene Locklear, child nutrition director for Robeson County schools, said providing Lunchables already has resulted in thousands more meals being consumed compared with last school year.

Promoting Lunchables to schools

On the cavernous lower level of the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, more than 300 food companies gathered in July to show off their products at the Super Bowl of trade shows for 6,500 members of the School Nutrition Association.

Near the entrance was the Kraft Heinz booth, No. 1107, prominently showcased in two large ads on the map handed out to conventioneers. Faux crackers as big as truck tires hung above the booth, alongside giant replica meat and cheese slices.

School lunch workers stopped to have their photos taken on a throne of fake french fries. Those interested in Lunchables received branded socks, along with a product pitch.

“This is using kids as a commodity item,” Bertrand Weber, director of culinary and wellness services for the Minneapolis Public Schools, said at the convention. “If more kids eat Lunchables in the lunchroom, more kids are going to want Lunchables outside the lunchroom.”

Weber wants a more holistic accounting of the meals served to students, with an emphasis on eliminating ultra-processed foods. (Minneapolis schools feed students antibiotic-free poultry and try to source produce from local farmers.) But the Agriculture Department sets limits only on sodium, saturated fat and calories, and requires certain amounts of whole grains, protein, fruits and vegetables.

It is those rules that allow companies such as Kraft Heinz to re-engineer their food to fall within federal guidelines so they can enter a school lunch market valued by the Agriculture Department at $14.2 billion annually. Two versions of Lunchables – the turkey-cheese combo and a pizza option – meet government standards.

Domino’s has sold schools a reformulated version of its pizza known as Smart Slice for more than a decade. The pizza – made with light mozzarella cheese, reduced-fat and reduced-sodium pepperoni, and dough rich in whole grain – is served in more than 900 districts across the country, according to company information featured on the Illinois School Nutrition Association’s website. A Domino’s spokeswoman would not discuss its market share, saying all public information about the Smart Slice program is available on the company’s website.

To make it onto the school lunch menu this fall, Kraft Heinz said the company spent nearly two years reformulating its store-bought Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker Lunchables to meet USDA Food and Nutrition Service standards – lowering the amount of saturated fat, increasing the protein, and adding whole grains to its crackers.

But the school version contains roughly 25 percent more sodium than the store version, according to Kraft Heinz’s nutritional data.

“By increasing the amount of turkey and cheese in the [National School Lunch Program]-compliant product, we increased the overall protein, and with that came a naturally elevated level of sodium as compared to the retail versions,” said Elve, the Kraft Heinz spokeswoman.

The rules say nothing about processed food. A highly processed chicken nugget that meets the standards is as acceptable as a chunk of actual chicken breast in school lunches.

“It is too easy for food manufacturers to reformulate sugar, salt and fat to meet standards for those nutrients and still produce a junk food,” said Marion Nestle, a retired professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

The government has no approval process to certify that lunch items sold in schools meet federal nutritional standards. Food and drinks that companies say fall within the requirements can be marketed to schools.

Over the summer, Kraft Heinz’s online marketing for its school Lunchables featured coloring pages of dinosaurs and rockets made of pizza crust and cheese that the company encouraged schools to print out to “spark students’ creativity through food.” The website invited public school food directors to enter a sweepstakes to win 20,000 Lunchables for their district.

A steady stream of school lunch directors and cafeteria workers inquired about Lunchables at the Kraft Heinz booth, recognizing the role that a product already popular with children could fill for their districts. Lunchables are a labor saver for schools confronting a severe shortage of low-wage food-prep workers, nutrition directors said in interviews. Some campuses lack functional ovens or kitchens. And the need for speed – many students have only about 20 minutes to wolf down lunch – encourages schools to offer grab-and-go meals.

These directors rely on the School Nutrition Association to lobby in behalf of their interests in Congress. But some directors and many health advocates say the association reflects the interests of the food industry, which pays for part of its operations. An advisory council composed mostly of industry representatives makes recommendations to association leadership.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, said the organization’s positions reflect “input from members working in school cafeterias nationwide.”

“At the national level, SNA’s Industry Advisory Council provides the Board of Directors information on critical issues, such as how supply chain disruptions are impacting K-12 procurement, and recommendations on industry programming at our conferences,” she said in a statement.

About half the association’s revenue comes from companies that provide the food, equipment and services for school meal programs, Pratt-Heavner said. “These funds allow SNA to provide members with professional development, credentialing and certificate programs and other critical training and support services.”

Food industry money was evident all around the convention. Companies paid the association at least $2.4 million for booths displaying their merchandise, according to a Post examination of the floor map and price list from the 2023 convention. Schwan’s Company, a major supplier of pizza and frozen foods to schools, sponsored a party billed as a full dinner and open bar at The Rooftop of Coors Field, where Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies play, according to an invitation. School personnel were offered tours of the clubhouse and a chance to walk on the field.

“Exhibit booth sales helped pay for the conference in Denver, which cost over $2 million this year and provided attendees with over 100 education sessions and culinary skills instruction, as well as networking opportunities,” Pratt-Heavner said.

In addition, the School Nutrition Association’s state chapters, which operate independently of the national organization, collectively received more than $1.3 million in industry money as of June, according to a Post examination of corporate sponsors listed on each state’s association website. Several of those websites touted company access to school nutrition directors and buyers who represent billions of dollars in purchasing power. Industry partners “are the life-blood of our organization,” Pennsylvania’s association wrote on its website. “Without their help, we could not operate.”

Several school nutrition directors said they were dismayed when the national association emailed ads for Lunchables to members last fall. One email, labeled “partner content exclusively for School Nutrition readers,” proclaimed: “Say hello to the new kid in school. Lunchables: Find us in the cafeteria!”

Despite the accompanying disclaimer in fine print that promotion does not imply endorsement, some school officials said they interpreted it as another sign of the financial ties between industry partners and the School Nutrition Association.

“Are you kidding me? Delete,” Weber, the Minneapolis food services director, recalled thinking when the email landed in his inbox. “To present it as an acceptable meal to a student I don’t think is right.”

Pratt-Heavner said the association allows advertising through email to raise money for member activities. The advertising features “a wide variety of K-12 products that meet USDA regulations. SNA does not dictate or control advertising content but employs a strict non-endorsement policy and clearly differentiates advertising from editorial content.”

Elve, the Kraft Heinz spokeswoman, said: “By offering Lunchables in schools, we’re able to help meet some of SNA’s needs by giving them affordable, convenient solutions that provide students with quality nutrition at lunchtime.”

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Cafeteria workers prepare lunch at Pembroke Elementary. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.

Industry influence over government policy

When President Harry S. Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, part of the impetus was the surprising number of men who had been rejected for military service during World War II because of malnutrition and other diet-related health problems. Under the plan, every child would get a nutritious lunch each day. In later decades, the program expanded to include breakfast and snacks.

Now, the problem for the armed forces is that a third of young adults are too heavy to join, military leaders complain.

The food industry and its allies in Congress have beaten back repeated federal attempts to improve what children are fed and limit the type of advertising they are exposed to as the nation’s obesity epidemic has grown.

In 1980, Congress passed a law curtailing the powers of the Federal Trade Commission, effectively blocking an agency proposal to limit the advertising of sugary products to children; critics of the plan considered it an overreach by government.

A Post analysis of AdImpact data on the $18 billion spent on national and local television food advertising between 2017 and 2022 shows that fast food represents by far the largest category, at 38 percent of all food ads. Candy is next, at 12 percent. Just 0.3 percent of advertising is for fresh produce.

Studies have demonstrated the power of ads to create and perpetuate demand. A 2019 review of research worldwide “documented a strong link between food marketing to childhood obesity.”

The consumption of highly processed food, especially ready-to-eat meals, has risen steadily – representing more than half the calories Americans consume – as industry has created hyper-palatable products that are addictive and especially appealing to children.

“Processed food is the new tobacco,” said Michael Moss, author of the book “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.” With smoking declining and obesity surging, he said, more people may now die from obesity-related complications than from smoking.

Bob Drane led the team that came up with Lunchables at Oscar Mayer in the 1980s as a way to sell excess bologna – and managed to create an on-the-go lunch wrapped in bright yellow packaging like a gift for children.

In an interview with The Post, Drane said he was surprised that Lunchables qualify as nutritious enough to be served in school cafeterias. His team constantly tinkered with the ingredients to improve the nutritional content, Drane said, but they couldn’t get enough customers to buy the healthier versions.

The company, then owned by the tobacco giant Philip Morris, conducted focus groups with children and discovered they thought assembling non-heated pizza components would be fun – despite their mothers’ strenuous objections, Drane said. Even his daughter would not feed Lunchables to her children.

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Attendees at the School Nutrition Association conference.

Kraft Heinz’s Elve said, “We are proud of the progress we’ve made, and we will continue to explore ways to make our products more nutritious.”

Michelle Obama moved into the White House in 2009 determined to tackle obesity and revolutionize school lunch for millions of low-income students. Although the first lady managed to push Congress to approve the biggest revision in lunchroom nutrition standards in decades, the 2010 legislation was far from a total victory.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act gave the USDA authority to enact the agency’s strictest limits ever on the fat and sodium students can consume and to require that their school diet contain more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. For many children, the law has made school lunch the most nutritious meal of the day. By 2014, the CDC reported, 79 percent of schools were offering non-fried vegetables, up from 62 percent in 2000, and 68 percent had reduced the amount of salt in their recipes or had switched to low-sodium recipes – double the percentage in 2000.

But battles over the regulations that implemented the law in 2012 revealed the might of companies opposed to tightened nutrition standards, particularly Schwan’s and Conagra Brands, which had been selling pizza and french fries to schools for years. With the help of congressional allies, industry succeeded in easing the requirements and delaying others.

The USDA wanted to limit the amount of starchy vegetables children could eat to one cup per week, and essentially remove pizza sauce from counting as a vegetable.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and representatives of other spud-growing states weren’t having the first idea. Collins showed up at a 2011 USDA budget hearing with a potato and a head of iceberg lettuce, extolling the potato’s nutritional value.

Collins spokeswoman Annie Clark said the senator “would agree that french fries are not the healthiest choice,” but baked potatoes are “an excellent source of potassium, fiber and other vitamins.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a proponent of the 2010 law, nevertheless supported Schwan’s, a home-state corporation. She wrote a letter to the USDA advocating for tomato paste, using language identical to Senate testimony from a Schwan’s executive.

The proposed USDA limits were never implemented.

Klobuchar, during her 2020 presidential bid, said she came to regret her defense of pizza sauce as a vegetable. “It was about trying to keep a company afloat in a really small town that employed a bunch of people,” she said during a CNN candidate town hall.

Jane Meyer, Klobuchar’s spokeswoman, told The Post, “She would not send a letter like that again. . . . She has repeatedly stood up for the health of our kids and will continue to do so.”

Schwan’s and Conagra did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In later years, Republicans have continued to fight stricter standards.

Under the Trump administration, the USDA restored low-fat (1 percent) flavored milk that had been eliminated from the lunch program during the Obama years.

Some Republicans are now threatening to block the USDA from further limiting sodium and reducing added sugar in milk, citing concerns about taste and food waste.

The USDA is prepared to roll out further changes more slowly than in the past to give industry time to adjust, said Cindy Long, administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, adding that the agency is mindful that school meals cannot be too far out of step with what families are buying and eating at home.

“We’ve learned a lot from the previous decade and have really tried to make a rule that reflects that,” she said. “We’re working very hard to craft standards that move school meals forward and that are doable for schools.”

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, opposes the USDA’s latest proposal to reduce the amount of added sugar in chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk despite the fact that many milk processors have already reached the standard, according to their industry group. He also wants to revisit the 11-year-old ban on whole and 2 percent milk in school lunches.

“We need to do a reauthorization of these school lunch standards,” Thompson said. “Kids are not getting healthier.”

Thompson, who says he comes from a long line of dairy farmers, received more than $939,000 from businesses in the agriculture sector – which includes dairy farmers, meat producers and food manufacturers – in the 2021-2022 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks money in politics.

His press secretary, Maddison Stone, said, “To insinuate Mr. Thompson’s involvement in dairy policy is somehow connected to political contributions ignores nearly a decade of his work to provide children with more milk options in the school lunch program.”

Thompson and Sen. John Boozman (Ark.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, were the top two recipients of political contributions by agribusiness in the 2021-2022 cycle.

Boozman, who received more than $1 million in such contributions during that time, said he plans to explore legislative ways to stop the USDA’s plans to tighten nutritional requirements.

“A school meal that meets all of these arbitrary standards does no good for children if it’s in the trash,” he said, noting that distributors have left the market because “there’s no other place to sell the foods that abide by these stringent standards.”

Asked about the contributions he has received from industry, Boozman said, “I resent this inference.”

Food warning labels in Chile

As the United States fails to reach consensus on how to prioritize children’s nutrition, other developed countries have managed to serve students healthier school lunches and limit their exposure to ads for junk food.

Chile has undertaken one of the most ambitious efforts in the world to fight obesity. Over vehement objections from industry, Chile passed a strict law in 2016 that banned ads directed at children for products that exceed thresholds for calories, fat, sugar and sodium during their traditional viewing hours.

Unhealthy products sold in Chile carry consumer-warning labels – black octagons akin to stop signs – on the front of the food packages.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is studying whether it, too, should add front-of-package nutrition labels to clearly indicate whether food is healthy, according to a proposed regulation published in the spring. FMI, The Food Industry Association, which represents manufacturers and major grocers, has warned that any labeling requirements could run into First Amendment issues and other legal challenges.

The Lunchables served by schools in the United States would require multiple warning labels if sold in Chile, according to an analysis done for The Post by researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Diego Portales University in Chile. The turkey-and-cheddar option would be labeled with three octagons for high calories, saturated fat and sodium. The cheese pizza would carry two warnings – for saturated fat and sodium.

The researchers, who are part of The Food Policy Program, analyzed Kraft Heinz’s product information sent to schools for the Lunchables.

Elve, the Kraft Heinz spokeswoman, characterized the labeling of Lunchables by Chilean standards as “reaching.”

“Front-of-pack nutrition labeling in Chile is regulated and specific to that market,” she said. “You’re attempting to compare Lunchables to something that isn’t comparable to a USDA standard, and we don’t sell Lunchables in Chile.”

The deficiencies in U.S. school lunches are glaring compared with meals eaten by children in Chile, which began to more tightly regulate school meals seven years ago to address childhood obesity, banning school sales of foods high in calories, sodium, sugar or saturated fat.

Shortly after the new school year began in August, students at Liceo No. 7 de Niñas de Providencia in Santiago sat down to a meal of lentil stew and a side salad – which one girl said tasted better than the seaweed stew served the previous week. Nothing was prepackaged. Lunch lasted 55 minutes. The only drink available was water.

At Pembroke Elementary in North Carolina, chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk were on the menu in September; federal rules mandate that milk be fat-free or contain just 1 percent fat. Children must take a fruit or a vegetable; salsa counts. And because the crackers in the Lunchables account for one grain portion, the school also provides whole-grain Cheez-Its to meet weekly requirements.

Students could choose between the turkey-and-cheddar Lunchables and “walking tacos” – a bag of Doritos (enriched with whole grains to meet USDA criteria) that they could smother in taco meat, beans, salsa, cheese and sour cream.

Providing Lunchables already has resulted in thousands more meals being consumed compared with last school year, the Robeson district’s nutrition director said; the district expects the pizza version to be even more popular.

Not everyone in the Robeson district accepts Lunchables as an inevitable part of the school diet. Richard Jones, who works in the school system mentoring Native American youth, said the district could do more to bring fresh food into the cafeteria.

Pembroke schools are surrounded by farms. Peach orchards dot the neighboring county. The main difficulty in serving locally grown fare, school nutrition officials said, is that farmers must be certified by the USDA to provide food to schools, a sometimes cumbersome process for small growers. So when Pembroke Elementary put out canned sliced peaches for lunch, the fruit was grown in Greece and served in light syrup.

“This is an Indian community. We’ve always had problems with flour and problems with sugar and gluten and things of that nature,” said Jones, a member of the Lumbee Tribal Council, referring to common chronic diseases linked to diet in his community.

Diabetes is flourishing among overweight schoolchildren here, he said. A dialysis center recently opened in town – a sign of the spread of kidney disease.

“When I see Lunchables, all I can see is high salt and carbs,” Jones said. He said schools are teaching children the wrong lesson about food.

“We’re encouraging kids to eat the quickest thing. Peel and go,” he said. “I just worry about the future.”