Baking up bread with benefits — like fiber, protein, and zero net carbs.
In school cafeterias, real food is rarely on the menu.
One in three American children are overweight or obese. And school food isn’t helping.
- 92% of school breakfasts and 69% of lunches contain 10% of calories from added sugar.
- School vending machine items contain up to 72% of calories from added sugar.
- 89% of school meal directors struggle to procure foods within nutrition guidelines.
Beyond physical health, there’s growing evidence poor food choices lead to cognitive and behavioral problems, negatively impacting academic performance.
Despite calls for nutritious options, a flawed system stands in the way of real change.
Shortchanged. Government funds subsidize school meals — but production costs now exceed reimbursement rates. So, while the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) provides free or reduced-price meals to low-income families, schools stretch dollars with cheap, easy-to-prepare foods.
And with 9.3M children experiencing food insecurity, these low-quality lunches are often the only choice.
Cashing in. Checking the box on price and convenience, Big Food is seizing the opportunity in schools. Leveraging lobbying and loopholes to keep quality standards low, the industry ensures that its products qualify as school meals.
The latest example, Kraft Heinz introduced a new line of Lunchables this spring, intentionally tailored to NSLP criteria. Detailing its strategy in an investor presentation, the company said it’s targeting the “untapped” $25B+ school market.
The catch? Already unhealthy, the school versions have more sodium than their store-bought counterparts.
Interestingly, Lunchables first debuted at a time when tobacco giant Philip Morris owned Kraft — as part of a plan to engineer addictive, “hyper-palatable” foods. Despite its origins and dietary shortcomings, Lunchables remain a cafeteria staple decades later.
Making matters worse, the food kids find at home or elsewhere isn’t any better.
- 70% of packed lunches contain highly processed foods.
- Products marketed to children are higher in sugar and lower in nutrients vs. general food products.
- Ultra-processed foods make up 67% of calories kids consume; half don’t eat a single vegetable during the week.
Not without hope, Little Spoon expanded beyond infants to healthify Lunchables for “big kids” and meal planning app Little Lunches, which generates real food-focused menus for children and families, is exploring B2B.
But faced with limited alternatives and rising prices, nutritious food remains out of reach for schools, parents, and, ultimately, kids.
Looking ahead: Kids might not know any better, but adults can’t deny the sad state of school lunches. Yet, instead of demanding change, we let food companies and policymakers rig the system while children bear the consequences. A collective failure, the status quo is unacceptable, but for now, there appears to be little appetite for action.