Contents of the "Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers" Lunchables package. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

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Many Philadelphia students and cafeteria workers agree: Lunchables would be a great addition to public school menus. The National School Lunch Program recently approved the pre-packaged meal kits to be served in cafeterias across the U.S. 

The School District of Philadelphia is not entertaining the idea, a spokesperson told Billy Penn.

Parents, however, are divided.

Before Ladonna Cuffey had time to respond, her children answered the question for her. The five kids, students in different schools across Southwest Philly, all cheered the idea of Lunchables coming to their cafeterias, while expressing an equally vocal disdain for the food they’re currently served.

“Some kids don’t even eat breakfast,” said eighth grader Marquis, adding that lunch menus are only slightly more popular.

His sister, fourth grader Logan, said she particularly enjoys Lunchables “when I come back from school and I haven’t even eaten the school lunch because I don’t like it.”

Listening to similar stories from the rest of her children, Cuffey’s answer was almost a given: “Of course they should add [Lunchables] to school menus.” It speaks to her concern about the kids being “hungry for 8 hours” every weekday, and what that does to their ability to focus on schoolwork.

Meghan DeFino, whose daughter is a second-grade student at Greenfield Public School in Center City, said she thinks it’s “a terrible idea,” but wasn’t surprised by the NSLP approval.

“The food they feed them is the equivalent of Lunchables already,” DeFino said.

Certain modified Lunchables meal kits were approved for inclusion in the National School Lunch Program. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Her daughter often complains of the quality of her school meals, she added, with even “things that kids should want to eat, like pizza, she doesn’t want because it’s microwaved.”

Billy Penn spoke with cafeteria managers from 11 public schools across the city. Asked to imagine how Lunchables might be received, most answered positively, with three citing their students’ oft-repeated complaints of being “bored” with existing choices.

One estimated only about a tenth of their Center City school’s 700 students take advantage of lunch, and that it’s frequently a single-digit number for breakfast.

“Why not?” said the cafeteria manager, who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to comment. “I see students coming in with [their own] Lunchables all the time.” 

Kraft Heinz touts ‘improved’ nutritional profile — but hasn’t released details

Currently, the Philadelphia School District is responsible for feeding just under 113,500 students across its 217 public schools, with upwards of 90% qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches.  

All school district meals are free from artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners, contain no high fructose corn syrup, and include local produce whenever possible, said district spokesperson Christina Clark. Menus are planned by a team of registered dieticians with student preferences in mind, according to the district website.

They will not include the Kraft Heinz meal kits.

“We do not have plans to incorporate Lunchables into our meal program,” Clark said, adding that meals set by the district “are evaluated through a USDA-certified nutritional database, taking into account calories, fat, sodium, and added sugars.”

A preparation of the “Extra Cheesy Pizza” Lunchables ingredients. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

Since their launch in 1988, Lunchables have been a frequent target by nutritionists who warn the heavily processed meal kits contain amounts of saturated fat and sodium far above the recommended daily maximum for children. In 2009, the Lunchables Maxed Out line of kits found itself on the Cancer Project’s list of worst packaged meals and in 2012, the Disney Channel announced it was considering a ban on Lunchables ads as part of the fight against childhood obesity.

The brand remains lucrative, bringing in $1.8 billion in sales for manufacturer Kraft Heinz in 2022 — 8.6% of the company’s total sales for the year.

After Kraft Heinz announced it had formulated new variations of two Lunchables meal kits with “improved nutrition,” the NSLP, run out of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, gave its approval.

Additional details of the modified meals — Turkey and Cheddar Cracker Stackers and Extra Cheesy Pizza — have been sparse. Kraft Heinz says they each contain 2 oz. of a meat or meat alternative, and 1 or 2 oz. of grain (along with ⅛ cup of a “red or orange vegetable” for the pizza kit).

The company has so far declined to provide any additional nutritional details. Its sell sheet touts potential labor and cost savings for schools, unlocked by serving pre-packaged, non-frozen meals. 

Kraft Heinz sell sheet touting National School Lunch Program approval

Cuffey, the mom in Southwest Philly, is appreciative of the district’s commitment to nutritional standards. 

But if school is the only opportunity for students to eat, and they don’t want to eat what’s being served, then that’s a problem that needs to be discussed, she said.

“Put yourselves in our children’s shoes,” Cuffey said, directing her message to district officials. “Imagine you’ve been in an office for 8 hours, hungry, and then presented with a meal that you have to force yourself to eat every day.”

She added, “Why not have something [the kids] would want to eat?” 

Could cafeteria managers help make existing lunches more popular?

For now, the Philadelphia School District says it isn’t interested in Lunchables — but when it comes to changes, cafeteria managers said they’re usually the last to know.

Details they shared with Billy Penn were consistent across the board. Menus are set by the district and handed down to be followed. Full-service schools receive items that require some limited amount of preparation, whereas satellite schools receive meals pre-packaged off-site.

In either case, the cafeteria manager’s job is to receive the delivery and oversee storage, any required prep, heating (usually by microwave), and serving. It’s a job that has been streamlined to the point that one manager seemed unbothered by the fact that they were their school cafeteria’s sole worker, supervising themselves in feeding an estimated 600 students a day.

“It’s not as bad as it sounds,” they explained. “There’s no cooking, it’s all just heating.”

While some expressed frustration at an inability to put hard-earned culinary skills to use, the more common objection was a general lack of involvement — they said they’d never been asked for input by either the School District, or their own administrators.

With the exception of one recent hire, every manager Billy Penn spoke to was able to immediately list the most popular, and unpopular, items off their menus.

“After all, we’re the ones who hear most directly from the students,” said one cafeteria manager. 

The “Extra Cheesy Pizza” Lunchables pack. (Ali Mohsen/Billy Penn)

The frustration over a lack of communication is shared by some parents.

“Most families will say they don’t even know what’s being served [that week],” said DeFino, of her kids’ school. “They don’t publicize the menu, you have to find it on a website from the city.”

A nutritionist, DeFino doesn’t see the heavily processed meal kits as the way to go. “I’m tired of the government being like, ‘Oh yeah we have an obesity epidemic, let’s give the kids Lunchables,’” she said.

Tynise White, mother of two South Philly public school students, said her biggest concern isn’t necessarily changes to school menus, but a lack of forum to discuss them.

With so many parents struggling in the face of rising prices, she said a platform for open communication would be helpful. Ideally, any proposed changes would be discussed early enough to “give [parents] the chance to opt in or out” and budget accordingly, if needed.

She is not in favor of Lunchables joining the district’s offerings. If that happened, White said, “I would start preparing my kids’ lunches.”

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Ali MohsenFood & Drink Reporter

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.