“Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.”
~John F. Kennedy
Over the course of the last few months I have been thinking a lot about food and it’s not just because I was planning holiday meals, weekly dinners, and school lunches. I have written before about The health of American exceptionalism and a 2009 study entitled “Ready, Willing and Unable To Serve” conducted by Mission: Readiness, which looked exclusively at the youth of Pennsylvania (ages 17-24). I discovered that if you combine those who are obese along with those who have other health related issues; over half of Pennsylvania’s prime military recruitment-aged population would fail the physical readiness baselines. Even more alarming is that the military is spending $1.1 billion a year on service-members that are struggling with weight related health issues. In a follow-up study titled “Still too Fat to Fight” from Mission: Readiness they conduct a national survey for the military by the CDC that shows that approximately 1 in 4 young adults is unable to serve.
When I joined the military in 2001 at 18 years old I was in pretty great shape, or so I thought. I played basketball in high school and I have always gone running for enjoyment; however at 5’2” I weighed about 150 pounds. My weight requirement for the Army was between 104 – 136 pounds. What that meant was that I then needed to be measured for body fat percentage; an embarrassing moment for any female but in the Army, there is no room for being embarrassed.
Maintaining a body fat percentage of less than 30% was necessary in order to ensure that I could be promoted, attend professional military schools, and accept assignments working for the Command, Command Sergeant Major or First Sergeant. There were a few times I didn’t make the 30% cut-off which meant I had to train additionally each day to lose the weight. It didn’t matter that I often performed to the highest levels of physical fitness measured by push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run, it was my weight that mattered and it was my weight that if not controlled I would be discharged from the Army for. It wasn’t my level of fitness that put me in this state it was the quality of food and nutrition I was getting.
We develop our eating habits as children and these eating habits stick with us for the rest of our lives unless we make a concerted effort to change them.
As a child my mother did her best to ensure we had food to eat and it was less about quality and more about quantity. There were a lot of us to feed and not a lot of money, so no one can blame her. They were not all the well-balanced meals we try to feed our children that include vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, the vegetables I ate were green beans and corn and they always came from a can. There were many nights of macaroni and cheese and hot dogs, spaghetti, ramen noodles, and peanut butter and jelly. While at school during the day I received the free school lunch. School lunches had standards from the USDA but were not as robust as the standards that have been enacted today. In 2010 Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act which consists of offering more whole grains, reduced fat dairy, and more fruits and vegetables. At the end of 2012 the USDA finalized nutrition standards for competitive foods and beverages sold at school. And our First Lady Michelle Obama has lead the charge to promote good nutrition through the Let’s Move campaign.
There is something going on here. If we look to how many children are food insecure, 16 million or 1 in 5 children, the quality of food they are receiving, food banks, SNAP benefits, school lunches, their future ability to serve in the United States Military, and the quality of food they are receiving while serving in the military there are definite links but there is also definitely something we can do about it.
Schools that meet the new standards from the USDA will have access to additional funding and will be reimbursed an additional 6 cents for each lunch they serve in accordance with the new standards. But what about those currently serving, who are in the same position I was that have to relearn how to eat? There has to be something we can do for them, to educate and promote healthy eating habits within the ranks.
The Department of Defense has started a campaign of their own called Operation Live Well and their Healthy Base Initiative. These programs are promoting healthy living within the base, from tobacco cessation, good nutrition, and exercise.
While these fixes of healthy eating, nutrition, and lifestyle changes have been focusing on two very large institutions of people and making changes within them, there are some very no-nonsense solutions that if implemented, would redirect our eating habits toward a healthier path.
Within the Armed Forces we can implement the following:
- Offer more organic and natural foods at the Commissary; bring the farmer’s market indoor so that fresh local fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats are offered throughout the week and not just on the weekend.
- Put nutritional information on all of the meals being served at the dining facilities so service-members can make smarter choices, offer more organic and natural foods within the dining facility.
- Instead of closing dining facilities as was done in 2012, remove the fast food restaurants from each military installation, moving them outside the gate. Not only will the health of our service-members increase the military will save money on the food-service contracts it gives to fast food chains.
Within schools we can:
- Provide nutritional information to parents on the school lunch menu. This easy step helps parents determine how many calories their children are receiving each day at school and plan accordingly with their home meals.
- Every lunch served at schools should offer an option that is organic and natural. All dairy products and meats should be hormone free.
- Offer a free healthy and nutritious breakfast to every student. School breakfast can not only improve a child’s ability to learn it improves their nutrition and protects against obesity.
We’re in a food fight and it is one of general well-being, financial sensibility as well as our national security. And while the process of transforming our nutritional priorities and establishing real solutions may be a messy one, accepting the current process of consuming deficient policies that are being fed to us will surely bring about continued decades of decline.
Through common-purpose and embrace an attitude of being ready, willing and able to take on the challenge, there is no doubt that we can win our food fight.