Miss a day, miss a lot. Subscribe to The Defender's Top News of the Day. It's free.
Industry lobbying and weak regulations made it possible for Kraft Heinz to get “Lunchables” on school menus, according to a new Washington Post investigation.
The Post spoke with more than 40 school districts, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), current and former Kraft Heinz representatives, congressional offices and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The newspaper also analyzed AdImpact data on local television food advertising.
The investigation found that the food industry wields significant power in Congress and also over the SNA, which is supposed to lobby Congress on behalf of school nutrition workers.
The industry also spends billions of dollars each year advertising ultra-processed foods to schools and kids.
The Post investigative team concluded that “Together, these circumstances contribute to the country’s harrowing childhood obesity problem.”
Obesity rates are particularly high among the low-income children who eat most of the nearly 5 billion lunches served by the National School Lunch Program each year.
Kraft Heinz sees those lunches, according to its own estimates, as the gateway to a $25 billion market. The food giant makes its advertising pitches directly to school lunch administrators, sending ads through the SNA, funding conferences and trainings and providing other perks, the Post reported.
“In the past, corporations were unable to pitch directly to the purchasers of school lunches,” Dr. Michelle Perro told The Defender. “However, today they can, and items such as Lunchables and the Impossible Burger are now making their way to our children’s lunchroom meals.”
Perro, an integrative pediatrician and author of “What’s Making our Children Sick?: How Industrial Food Is Causing an Epidemic of Chronic Illness, and What Parents (and Doctors) Can Do About It,” said these foods are laden with unhealthy ingredients and with chemicals that damage kids’ health.
“What’s the problem with this highly-processed, low-nutritional yielding product?” Perro asked, referring to Lunchables. “Its main ingredient is sugar, and it contains GMO corn/soy/cottonseed, unidentified ‘flavors’ (which can contain a host of toxic ingredients), partially hydrogenated fats, and a significant number of synthetic additives.”
“This is a must-avoid product, not one to be served up to children,” she added.
Critics like Perro who spoke to The Defender said the Post’s coverage missed some of the key issues evident in Lunchables’ inclusion on the school lunch tray.
“The question here is who’s to blame? I think everyone knows that food giants are not incentivized to improve health. Heinz/Kraft was once owned by RJ Reynolds (RJR), and no doubt, all the tactics honed by the tobacco industry are now being applied to food: getting kids addicted to junk food in the same way that RJR got people addicted to cigarettes.
“However, the government’s dietary guidelines — its ideal diet — includes six servings of grain per day including three servings of refined grains, plus 10% of calories as sugar. That’s a surefire way to put a child on a path to obesity, diabetes and more.
“These guidelines are the root of the problem and in my view, far more culpable, because we don’t expect multinational corporations to prioritize the public good over profit, but we certainly expect our government to act in the interest of the public health.”
Perro, who testified Tuesday at a congressional briefing on fast food, school lunches and children’s health, said one key problem with Lunchables, and the USDA regulations in general, is the amount of pesticides, like glyphosate, permitted in foods served to kids.
Mark Doudlah, a sixth-generation farmer who owns Doudlah Farms Organics, testified along with Perro and told The Defender that highly processed lunches, made from pesticide-laden ingredients and allowed by the USDA, “are not real food.”
“Our kids need nutrient-dense, safe food. And the farther away we get from that, the sicker our population is going to get, the more chronic disease we are going to see,” he added.
He said industry and legislators often argue that organic food can’t be included in school lunches because it is more expensive. “But,” he said, “We’re going to spend the money anyway. We either spend it on sick care or we become proactive.”
“We don’t need any more research on how organic relates to health. The evidence is clear. We need to get the legislation, the obstacles, and the USDA has to make the right incentives to unshackle our kids and unshackle organic farmers to solve the situation.”
Four takeaways from the Post’s investigation into ‘how Lunchables ended up on school lunch trays’
1. Industry finds ways around existing USDA regulations.
Carolyn Villa, the food services director for Colorado’s Boulder Valley School District, told the Post, “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.”
Lunchables didn’t initially meet the existing USDA standards for the National School Lunch Program, which provides meals to nearly 30 million kids across the country.
So the company re-engineered two styles of Lunchables — turkey and cheddar or extra cheesy pizza — to meet the standards by lowering the amount of saturated fat, increasing the protein and adding whole grains to the crackers.
The new, USDA-approved version contains about 25% more sodium than the store version, the Post reported, allowing Kraft Heinz to enter a school lunch market valued by the USDA at $14.2 billion annually.
Domino’s sold a reformulated version of its pizza, Smart Slice, for over a decade, according to the paper.
And Perro noted the more recent arrival of lunch items like the Impossible Burger into school lunch programs.
She said, “The Impossible Burger is made from genetically modified soy and contains over 44 novel proteins that humans have not digested previously. Not to mention, glyphosate is delivered with that imposter burger, so that’s another misstep for the school nutrition program.”
The USDA rules are silent on processed food, according to the Post.
And Kraft Heinz spokesperson Lynsey Elve told the paper, “Processed foods arbitrarily classified as ‘ultra-processed’ are not necessarily less nutritious.”
According to the NOVA classification system, food processing occurs on a spectrum, with traditionally canned or fermented foods being “processed” but minimally so, whereas ultra-processed foods have not only been cooked or altered but also contain unnatural ingredients, like artificial flavors, genetically engineered ingredients or preservative chemicals — such as those found in Lunchables.
“It is too easy for food manufacturers to reformulate sugar, salt and fat to meet standards for those nutrients and still produce junk food,” Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a retired professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University told the Post.
Bob Drane, who first developed Lunchables for Oscar Mayer in the 1980s as a way to unload excess bologna, told the Post he was surprised Lunchables qualify as nutritious enough to be served in school cafeterias,
Drane told the Post that “Even his daughter would not feed Lunchables to her children.”
2. Big Food dumps big money into turning kids into lifetime customers
The Post’s investigation described a school lunch convention in Colorado, where 300 food companies market their products to 6,500 members of the SNA.
Companies paid at least $2.4 million for booths to hawk their merchandise to school personnel attending the convention.
Kraft Heinz also does online marketing directly to educators, distributing coloring pages filled with fun animals made out of Lunchable ingredients for kids to color, effectively advertising their products directly to kids.
“This is using kids as a commodity item,” Bertrand Weber, director of Culinary and Wellness Services at Minneapolis Public Schools, told the Post at the convention. “If more kids eat Lunchables in the lunchroom, more kids are going to want Lunchables outside the lunchroom.”
In the school lunch market, “The company has access to generations of future customers,” the Post noted. And despite critical coverage by outlets including The Defender, Mercola and the Post, the company reported its media exposure about Lunchables in schools has been “99% positive/neutral” and cost them “virtually nothing” to generate.
The Post also analyzed AdImpact data that showed of the “$18 billion spent on national and local television food advertising between 2017 and 2022 … 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 paper noted.
3. SNA largely funded by Big Food
According to the Post, “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.
There is evidence Kraft Heinz and other Big Food actors are influencing the USDA through its lobbying efforts. The SNA said in its 2021-24 Strategic Plan that it’s working to build a “strong working relationship with USDA” while focusing on its own “stakeholder community.”
The group’s spokesperson told the Post that it uses the revenue from industry — about half its total revenue — “to provide members with professional development, credentialing and certificate programs and other critical training and support services.”
And its state chapters, which operate separately from the national association, received more than $1.3 million of industry money as of June, the Post found.
Many school nutrition directors told the Post they were dismayed when the organization directly emailed ads for Lunchables to its membership.
But Kraft Heinz insists it is helping to “meet some of SNA’s needs by giving them affordable, convenient solutions that provide students with quality nutrition at lunchtime.”
4. Big Food works with congressional allies to block efforts to improve children’s diets and limit advertising
The USDA’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 revamped the National School Lunch Program to conform to standing dietary guidelines recommending reduced saturated fat in children’s diets. It also required schools to offer more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
The law also set requirements — such as banning 2% and whole milk in participating schools — without evidence-based research that the requirements would improve children’s health.
And there are numerous examples of congressional members backed by Big Food who have fought to keep processed and pesticide-laden food in schools.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and other representatives from potato-producing states fought against the proposal to limit starchy vegetables in school lunches. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) used language taken directly from a Schwan’s executive to push for tomato paste to be considered a vegetable in school lunches.
Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, opposes the USDA’s latest proposal to reduce the amount of added sugar in chocolate- and strawberry-flavored milk, the Post reported, noting that he has received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from Big Food.
And Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) of the Senate Agriculture Committee received upwards of $1 million from agribusiness in the 2021-22 election cycle and “he plans to explore legislative ways to stop the USDA’s plans to tighten nutritional requirements,” the paper reported.
The Post’s reporting focused on legislative ties to industry. But earlier this month, the nonprofit watchdog organization U.S. Right to Know reported that nearly half of the members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee have conflicts of interest. They receive funding from the food, pharmaceutical or weight-loss companies or industry groups with a stake in the outcome of the guidelines.
That committee sets the guidelines for the USDA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.