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No Longer Lunch-Able

CECILIA BLOTTO, HOST: Lunchables might have been your favorite snack growing up. Or, if your parents were anything like mine, you might have had to go to a friend’s house to get one of the kits’ tiny pizzas or dunkable pretzel twists. 

And it turns out that might not have been bad instincts - a recent Consumer Report had troubling findings, including unhealthy levels of sodium in the popular kids’ snack. 

MARINE SAINT, HOST: But just last year, Lunchables were added to the national school program. This raises some serious concerns about the health of school lunches. Luckily for New Yorkers, the city is meeting healthier benchmarks for lunch programs and is bringing nutritious offerings to cafeterias through a new program called Chefs in Schools. Claire Davenport has the story.

CLAIRE DAVENPORT, BYLINE: For Brooklyn parent Nancy Cruz, Lunchables has never been on the menu.

NANCY CRUZ: I think healthy meals are important and lunchables are not food and they should definitely be removed from the diet.

DAVENPORT: A Consumer Report came out last week about unhealthy levels of sodium among other issues in the popular kids’ snack. Sodium levels in one Lunchable serving is almost half of a child’s daily recommended limit. I spoke with Gila Schwarzchild, director of programming for nutrition and food science at the Hunter School Food Lab about these findings. 

SCHWARZCHILD: I think it's a shame that there isn't more testing going on, but that's kind of where we are, I think, in the food system.

DAVENPORT: This was a refrain I heard multiple times talking to parents and nutrition experts. To Schwarzchild, it’s not just disappointing, it’s potentially dangerous. 

SCHWARZCHILD: Ultra-processed foods in large quantities in repeated exposures over time are at increased the risks for lots of diseases. 

DAVENPORT: So this is a crucial time to teach kids healthy habits. 

SCHWARTZCHILD: It’s like this amazing moment in a person’s life where we get to feed them literally what they’re gonna think about food for the rest of their life. 

DAVENPORT: She says a good way to tell that meal is healthy? Lots of color. And Lunchables look pretty bland. 

SCHWARZCHILD: They don't look exciting. They look brown. Brown and then tan.

DAVENPORT: But New York kids may never know what they’re missing thanks to state rules. 

CATHER: They have more stringent regulations around sodium, sugar, whole wheat, so they declined to include lunchables in their school food program.

DAVENPORT: Alexina Cather is the director of policy and special projects at Wellness in the Schools, a nonprofit working to make school meals healthier. Her organization is helping to pilot Chefs in Schools, which brings fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains to cafeterias. It’s harder than it sounds. 

CATHER: It's a million meals a day. So it's second only to the U. S. military in terms of institutional food. So just that speaks volumes. If you can do it in New York City, you can do it anywhere.

DAVENPORT: But you have to do it on a budget. Cather her program has a dollar a 40 cents per child for each meal. It’s a trade-off. 

CATHER: We spend billions of dollars on health care down the road. It's like you can pay for it in the beginning or pay more in the end.

DAVENPORT: New York's healthy food programs and bans on Lunchables could be a model for other states, even if the students are a little … salty about it. Some food for thought. 

Claire Davenport, Columbia Radio News.


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