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  2. Oct 23, 2023

Students Need Plant-Based School Lunches, Not Lunchables

by Stephanie McBurnett, RDN

disgusted school kid
Photo: Getty Images

Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker and Extra Cheesy Pizza. These sound like items on the menu at a greasy spoon. Instead, these unhealthy meals—in the form of Lunchables—are now available to the 100,000 school cafeterias participating in the National School Lunch Program. As a mom and dietitian, I’m worried this puts the health of our nation’s children at risk.

But sadly, these Lunchables have been formulated to meet federal school nutrition standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the NSLP. So what should the USDA know about the low nutrition standards of Lunchables?

Let’s start with processed meat. Eating processed meat, like the turkey in the Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker, increases the risk of colorectal cancer and other cancers. It’s also linked to heart disease and mortality. While these consequences may not be immediate, a lifetime of eating processed meat makes them more likely in adulthood.

Cutting back on saturated fat in school lunches is also critical, so the 7 grams of saturated fat in the Extra Cheesy Pizza and the 6 grams of saturated fat the Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker, while within NSLP standards, are a concern. Much of that saturated fat comes from the meat and cheese—dairy being the number one source of saturated fat in the American diet.

Limiting saturated fat has been shown to significantly lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and blood pressure in children and adolescents. That’s important as obese children now show evidence of significant heart disease beginning as young as age 8. And half of U.S. children and adolescents do not have ideal cholesterol levels, with 25% in the clinically high range.

These Lunchables are also loaded with sodium, which also puts heart health at risk. Just one Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker—containing 930 milligrams of sodium—provides more than half of the amount of sodium most children should consume in a day. The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams a day for children ages 4-8, 1,800 milligrams a day for ages 9-13, and 2,300 mg/day for older age groups. 

About 90% of U.S. children ages 6-18 years consume too much sodium daily, much of it from processed products like Lunchables, which is why 1 in 6 children ages 8-17 years have raised blood pressure.

The fruits and vegetables—or lack of—in Lunchables is also lamentable. The Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stacker contains none, while the Extra Cheesy Pizza contains a measly equivalent to 1/8 cup of red/orange vegetable.

That does little to help improve the statistics showing that only 7.1% of U.S. adolescents eat the federally recommended servings of fruit per day, and only 2% consume the daily recommended servings of vegetables per day. Recommendations for the amount of fruit and vegetables children should eat are based on a child’s age and gender and range from 1-2 cups for fruit and 1-3 cups for vegetables. 

The latest Dietary Guidelines say that low intake of fiber—found only in fruits and vegetables and other plant foods—is a dietary component of public health concern. 

Instead of adding Lunchables to the NSLP, the USDA should be adding more plant-based meals that contain fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. 

Plant-based diets have been shown to help improve childhood obesity, an epidemic that increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, conditions that are sadly becoming more and more common in children. A low-fat, vegan diet also lowers the risk of heart disease in obese children by improving their weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, according to a Cleveland Clinic Study.

Plant-based school lunches can also help fill the fiber gap. Vegan meals in a case study my organization conducted at a K-8 school contained triple the amount of fiber found in standard school lunch entrees. The plant-based entrees also had zero cholesterol (compared with an average of 54 milligrams in the standard entrees), more iron, calcium, and vitamins A and C, and less fat and saturated fat.

The Healthy Future Students and Earth Pilot Program Act of 2023, a bill that is being considered in Congress, could help. It would provide much-needed resources to schools to expand plant-based options and remove inequitable barriers in federal law that prevent students from being served nondairy milk. Legislation in New York State (S996 / A3708) would also provide plant-based options upon request to students in New York public schools.

As epidemics of diet-related disease continue to take a toll on children, Lunchables—and other school meals—loaded with processed meat, dairy, and saturated fat are unacceptable, and we should be calling on the federal government to provide more healthy plant-based school meals for children.

Stephanie McBurnett, RDN, is the nutrition educator for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 

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