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Starting this fall, more highly processed foods will be on the menu for children in public schools thanks to a “major new initiative” to get Kraft Heinz’s “Lunchables” products into U.S. public school cafeterias.

The company said two versions of the Lunchables product will be served in K-12 public schools, either for students to buy or free, under the National School Lunch Program.

The company said it developed two styles of Lunchables — turkey and cheddar or extra cheesy pizza— that meet the federal nutritional guidelines set for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National School Lunch Program, which provides meals to nearly 30 million kids across the country.

Both options were made using “a specialized recipe that incorporates more protein and whole grains to keep kids powered throughout the day, reduced saturated fat and sodium, and an increased serving size,” Kraft Heinz told CNN Business.

But critics — including John Fagan, Ph.D., a leading authority on biosafety, food authenticity and sustainability in the food and agricultural system — said he doubted the nutritional value of the products.

The USDA business deal with Kraft Heinz is “disappointing,” Fagan told The Defender.

“Our government is not recognizing … the school lunch opportunity to strengthen our food system, but instead providing a sweetheart deal to one of the big players in Big Food,” Fagan said.

The Kraft Heinz Company is the fifth-largest food and beverage company in the world. Its product line includes Velveeta cheese, Kool-Aid and Jell-O.

Fagan is CEO and chief scientific officer of Health Research Institute, which conducts testing on the nutrient and pesticide levels in foods and recently published a report on school lunches.

He said it’s well established that highly processed foods like Kraft Heinz’s products increase inflammation and free radicals.

“With such highly processed materials, you also are missing a lot of the really important nutrients that are just naturally present in real food,” Fagain said, adding:

“We’re putting our children at a big disadvantage to expose them to these foods and put them really in a situation where they have little choice about what they can eat.”

Highly processed foods like Lunchables contain many additives — “artificial chemicals,” Fagan said. “They’re not something that’s a natural part of the diet.”

A new study on food additives published recently in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed about 60% of foods Americans buy now contain coloring or flavoring agents, preservatives and sweeteners.

According to the study’s authors, we need more research on these additives, as we don’t fully understand the health consequences of consuming them.

The full ingredient lists for the Lunchables products approved for schools are not widely available.

However, the turkey and cheddar version sold at Target contains numerous additives including: potassium lactate, modified cornstarch, dextrose, salt, carrageenan, sodium phosphates, sodium diacetate, potassium salts, sodium ascorbate, natural and artificial flavor, sodium nitrite, smoke flavor, sorbic acid, sunflower lecithin, palm oil and sugar.

USDA setting policies that reinforce consolidation of the food system

The USDA, which sets the standards for what goes on a kid’s cafeteria tray, is weighing changes that would slowly put a cap on added sugars by 2025, reduce weekly sodium limits and require offering more whole-grain options.

The public can comment on the proposed changes through April 10, 2023.

It is currently unclear whether Lunchables products that launch in schools this fall would meet the new criteria.

There is evidence Kraft Heinz and other Big Food actors are influencing the USDA through the lobbying efforts of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), a tax-exempt nonprofit representing more than 50,000 members that bills itself as the “voice of the school nutrition industry.”

The SNA said in its 2021-24 Strategic Plan it’s working to build a “strong working relationship with USDA” while focusing on its own “stakeholder community.”

SNA patrons include Kraft Heinz, Tyson Foods, PepsiCo and Cargill.

Fagan criticized the USDA for supporting Big Food instead of local, natural food sources:

“Why is the USDA setting policies that reinforce the consolidation of the food system when it would be better for America for them to be reinforcing local options for the schools?

“And why don’t we have a program that is designed to capture those local foods and bring them in and support that in a conscious, intentional way?”

Doing that would “hit a lot of positive buttons,” Fagan said, by providing “fresher, more natural food” to kids at school while reducing shipping costs — since locally produced foods aren’t dependent on the global supply chain.

“We should be looking to strengthen the resilience of our food system — and the most direct way to do that is to decentralize it and make it more accessible, to integrate local sources to the greatest extent possible,” Fagan said.