Some Lunchables brand products will make their way from lunch boxes and vending machines next year to the school cafeteria line—and that’s a development some nutritionists are likely to find concerning.
But food-service industry experts said the change reflects the growing challenges school districts face in providing nutritious meals to an expanding pool of students.
Starting in the 2023-24 academic year, school districts will have the option of serving two new lunch menu items in their cafeterias from Lunchables’ line of products: the Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker and Extra Cheesy Pizza Lunchables.
The prepackaged items have been revamped to meet standards of the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted meal program, according to Kraft Heinz, the maker of the Lunchables product line. That means they’ve been given the OK to be served as a lunch menu item in school cafeterias.
Even retooled and reduced in size, the turkey and cheese pizza stacker items contain about half the daily sodium requirement for most kids; both items also contain nitrates and other substances that increase the product’s shelf life and have been linked to health risks.
While parents and nutrition-conscious educators may let out a collective gasp of horror at the change, it also reflects districts’ ongoing challenges with staffing, supply-chain issues, and uncertain funding.
In a 2023 survey of 1,230 school meal program directors nationwide by the School Nutrition Association, nearly all respondents (93 percent) reported having staffing challenges.
Chris Zuber, senior director of client services, Southeast region, for Kelly Education, a subsidiary of staffing company Kelly Services, partners with hundreds of schools to hire food services employees. He said cafeterias can be hard to staff because of the jobs’ low pay, high physical demands, and nontraditional work hours.
Some food services positions in the Southeast region start as low as $8 an hour, Zuber said, which is 75 cents more than the $7.25 federal minimum wage. Similar jobs in the private sector, such as fast food restaurants, tend to pay more than food-service positions at schools, Zuber said.
And workers’ schedules generally run from very early morning to early afternoon, about 6 a.m. to 1p.m. Employees are required to be on their feet and sometimes must lift up to 50 pounds. They may also need a food handler’s permit and must undergo fairly extensive background checks.
Prepackaged foods enable school cafeterias to feed children when staffing is lean.
Increasing costs and supply chain issues
The increasing cost of food supplies surpassed even the challenge of employee shortages, according to the 2023 School Nutrition Association survey. Nearly all respondents (99.8 percent) reported that costs are a challenge; 88.5 percent labeled them a “significant” challenge. Costs could also rise next school year because a reimbursement rate hike provided by Congress for the 2022-23 school year is set to expire in July 2023. The temporary funding boost was part of the bipartisan Keep Kids Fed Act of 2022, which extended federal pandemic waivers. Even with the additional federal funds allotted for the current school year, more than half of survey respondents (56.6 percent) said the federal support doesn’t cover the cost of producing school lunches.
The supply-chain issues that reverberated throughout the food industry during the pandemic also continue to affect school cafeteria supplies.
“Schools were already struggling with menu item shortages and delayed deliveries,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association. “The war in Ukraine has created a problem with getting whole-grain items in the door.”
Scrambling to serve lunch during the school day
Confronted with those challenges, some schools during the pandemic were forced to cobble together less-than-ideal alternatives to the made-from-scratch lunch meal. In October 2021, the New York Times reported that North Kansas City Schools in Missouri had to stock up on frozen pizzas, Tater Tots, and hot dogs from Sam’s Club. Several schools in the Anchorage district in Alaska offered students prepackaged, shelf-stable meals for lunch because they didn’t have enough employees to prepare hot meals.
The introduction of Lunchables as lunch menu items suggests the problems aren’t over.
The changes to the Extra Cheesy Pizza and Cheese Cracker Stacker Lunchable products that qualified them to be served under the federal lunch program guidelines include added protein and whole grains and reduced saturated fat and sodium.
But the offerings are still not ideal.
The Stacker item contains 930 mg. of sodium, nearly half the daily sodium requirement for 9- to 14-year-olds, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Both processed food items include nitrates, linked in research to cancer and other health risks.
Federal guidelines do not prohibit processed foods from being served in school cafeterias, according to Pratt-Heavner, who acknowledged that preparing meals from scratch, while ideal, is not practical.
“Given these challenges, there’s no way that all schools across the country could scratch prepare meals for students,” said Pratt-Heavner. “We have schools that really don’t have basic kitchens.”