General: School lunches are U.S. national-security issue

April 15, 2015
Students sit down to eat a healthy lunch at Marston Middle School in San Diego

Students sit down to eat a healthy lunch at Marston Middle School in San Diego, California, March 7, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Blake

What’s on kids’ school-lunch trays can have an impact that reaches far beyond the cafeteria — even to the frontlines where our men and women serve.

If you’re wondering why a retired general cares about school lunches, know that childhood obesity is a serious national security issue. When I served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy, I was responsible for recruitment, retention and related human-resource management of the U.S. Armed Services’ 1.4 million active-duty members.

That is why I am alarmed that nearly one in three young adults ages 17 to 24 is too heavy to serve in the military. Among active-duty service members, 12 percent are obese based on their height and weight, an increase of 61 percent since 2002. The military’s health system spends more than $1.5 billion annually treating obesity-related health problems and replacing troops discharged because they are unfit.

To match feature HEALTHCARE-LUNCHES/

Students have a nutrition break mid-morning consisting of milk, juice, an orange and either mini sausage roll or Vegetarian Italian bagel at Belmont High School in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

In addition, though many recruits may suffer injuries to muscles, tendons and bones, people are at far greater risk if they have excess body weight, poor calcium intake or years of inadequate exercise in childhood. The Veterans Administration pays more than $5 billion a year to military personnel disabled by musculoskeletal injuries.

We are all paying a high price, in both our military and civilian society, for allowing childhood obesity rates to triple in just one generation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While obesity is a complex problem and there is no single solution to it, the school-nutrition environment is one obvious place to begin changing eating habits. That’s where kids consume up to half their daily calories.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is holding a hearing Wednesday on what’s served in school-lunch rooms nationwide. A new study gives Congress even more reason to act. It shows students not only like the healthier choices, they also are eating far more fruits and vegetables.

Students served healthier foods ate nearly 20 percent more of their entrees and 40 percent more of the vegetables they chose, according to a Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity study published in the journal Childhood Obesity. Which means they threw away less food. The study also showed that more than 20 percent more children chose fruit.

For these reasons and more, hundreds of retired admirals and generals joined Mission: Readiness to show strong support for the 2010 Child Nutrition Act, which seeks to improve school meals and snacks. Thanks to bipartisan leadership in Congress and can-do school food-service professionals, school foods are no longer laden with fat, sugar and sodium. Instead, schools serve more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Fresh vegetables being chopped in the kitchen of Revolution Foods in Los Angeles

Fresh vegetables are chopped in the kitchen of Revolution Foods, which delivers health-focused lunches, breakfast and snacks to schools, in Los Angeles, August 19, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The good news is that it’s working. The Department of Agriculture reports that 90 percent of the nation’s schools are serving healthier meals. In a recent survey, school administrators reported widespread student acceptance of the healthier meals across all grade levels. Meanwhile, an overwhelming 72 percent of parents favored the improved school nutrition standards in a nationwide poll by the Pew Charitable Trusts, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association.

There is, unfortunately, a misguided effort to retreat from these healthy foods. The move is driven by complaints that some students have trouble adjusting to the more wholesome meals and snacks. Some schools, these critics say, are struggling to find healthier ingredients and the necessary equipment and training to prepare the new meals.

In response, the Department of Agriculture is offering these schools flexibility in meeting the healthier standards. It has removed caps on proteins because of problems some schools faced and will allow pasta that is not whole grain. In addition, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced tens of millions of dollars in grants for new school kitchen equipment. It will also pay for training so the school nutrition professionals know how to prepare healthy meals.

We should continue to support schools that are having a tougher time. But like our armed forces, we should not stop when the going gets tough — especially when so many signs of progress abound.

The last thing we need to do now for our children’s health and our national security is to sound retreat from healthy school meals.


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The ills of republican policies are coming home to roost.

This issue of child poverty and nutrition are a result of the attempt to weaken and make smaller government in underfunding agencies and programs so the wealthy have no responsibility other than their own self interest, i.e. Ayn Rand.

A child in poverty does not have the nutrition, health, and provisions to learn and be a productive member of society.

Increasing crime, mental illness, and lost productivity.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Yet another indication how Partisan Politics supersede the common good. The poor have no Lobbies.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Typical liberal whining, blaming everyone else for your lack of self control and pigging out a McDs.

Teach kids self control and nutrition, not to blame everyone else for their liberal problems.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

“The poor have no lobbies”?! Are you kidding? ALL Democrats run on promises to increase EIC, increase free medical care (Medicaid, free medical for lazy, is the biggest budget item in all 50 states!)
More free EBT/food stamps is the Democrat platform!

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

here’s a comment –

what’s wrong with my opinions?

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

They should provide more junk food to the young adults so not a single one of them would be able to join the army. The author pointed to a real solution for peace in the world. Add estrogen too…

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Military is too picky. Honestly, how skinny do you have to be to fly a drone or do paperwork.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive