The ready-to-eat packaged meals – known as Lunchables that are sold at grocery stores and have sustained generations of American schoolchildren are set to be served directly to students at school lunch programs beginning in the fall.
But Heinz, the Pittsburgh-based company which manufactures them, first had to change their ingredients to satisfy federal nutrition regulations.
Kraft Heinz executive vice-president Carlos Abrams-Rivera said the company has produced two new varieties of specially formulated Lunchables containing “improved nutrition” so that they can become part of the National School Lunch program, which provides lunch daily to nearly 30 million students across the US.
The modified Lunchables meet the program’s standards, Abrams-Rivera said.
Heinz’s website shows those products at least sound very similar to the ones that parents have often bought at stores and given to their children to take to school: “Lunchables Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers” and “Lunchables Extra Cheesy Pizza”. But, if they have truly been made to be more nutritious, they are certain to taste differently, one expert has warned.
Heinz official said each of its new Lunchables offerings contains two-ounce equivalents MMA (meat/meat alternative), one ounce equivalent of grain and that they meet the National School Lunch Program’s “whole grain rich criteria”.
The new Lunchables rollout comes amid changes issued by the US department of agriculture to school food programs aimed at reducing sugars and sodium levels. Schools are required to offer meals that contain five meal components – fruit, vegetable, protein, grain and milk.
Under new proposals, schools are encouraged to use more locally grown food. The USDA has said it plans to invest $100m in a Healthy Meals Incentives initiative offering farm-to-school grants and the replacement of kitchen equipment put out in the 1980s as schools moved to prepackaged processed food.
Last month, the US agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told CNN that the purpose of the changes is to “improve the health and welfare of our children”.
The changes comes as rates of childhood obesity have become a “serious problem”, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency recorded obesity – often linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, breathing issues and joint problems – prevalent in almost 20% of children and adolescents between the ages of 2 and 19 from 2017 through 2019.
The condition was found to be more prevalent within certain populations: about a quarter in Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black children, 16% among non-Hispanic white children and 9.0% among non-Hispanic Asian children.
Campaigners in favor of school nutritional standards said they were studying the Lunchables offerings to see if they meet National School Lunch Program guidelines as Heinz claims.
“Kraft Heinz has been promoting it for a while now to school and state organizations,” the federal child nutritions campaign manager at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Meghan Maroney, told ABC News.
If the new Lunchables do indeed meet the guidelines, Maroney added, they will “taste different” from the ones long sold in stores because of lower sodium and saturated fat. “This can be confusing for kids,” she added.
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