Why Johnny Can't March: School Food Threatens National Security | Civil Eats

Why Johnny Can’t March: School Food Threatens National Security

Last week an organization of retired military officers called Mission: Readiness published their findings that more than one quarter of Americans age 17-24 are “Too fat to fight.”  They pinned the blame on our school food system.

Now being of the left-of-center-pacifist persuasion myself, my initial reaction was “Oh good, a little less cannon fodder.”  But looking at this study with an eye toward history, it gives me great hope.

Near the beginning of the 20th century, it was military preparedness that necessitated the federal government’s implementation of physical education requirements in the nation’s schools.  One can disagree with the motive there while acknowledging that the end result – active, healthier children – was a good thing.  So, hopefully, this study might help push us toward a better school food system as well.

Today one in three children born after 2000 will develop early-onset diabetes before they are old enough to enlist.  Among minorities that ratio rises to one in two.  Even setting aside military readiness, and regardless of what health reform will or will not do, no society can support a population where one third to one half of it is diabetic.

What Mission: Readiness has demonstrated is that the need for improving our children’s diets spans all ideologies.  Libertarians and some conservatives may find my ideas about real food and gathering around the table too touchy-feely-hippie for them, but it’s easy for them to understand implications to our national defense if Johnny can’t bounce out of his bunk at reveille and touch – or even see – his toes.

When he signed the School Lunch Act in 1946, which was in part explicitly “a measure of national security,” President Truman said, “In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children….”  It was a simple weak-link argument that no one can deny, hawk or dove.

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Since then though our nation’s school lunch program has become little more than a dumping ground for our tax-subsidized, corporate-owned, chemically-processed, fat-and-HFCS-laden surplus food-like substances.

The Child Nutrition Reauthorization now in limbo in the Senate, which is what the retired generals from Mission: Readiness were on Capitol Hill last week to address, does indeed earmark $4.5B for improving school lunches over the next 10 years.  Good as that may be, it’s less than a tenth of what is needed.  Besides altering the nutritional guidelines to give the district foodservice directors the freedom to use more local, fresh meats and produce, we need to spend – at a minimum – at least a dollar more per meal.  That works out to about $5.4B annually.

That’s one-half-of-one-percent the US Military’s projected 2010 budget.  So, seeing that we spend as much as the next 14 nations combined on our military, I suggest that we spend only as much as the next 13, fully fund our school nutrition programs, and wait to see if number 14 (Australia) tries to invade us.

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Chef Kurt Michael Friese is editor-in-chief and co-owner of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. A graduate and former Chef-Instructor at the New England Culinary Institute, he has been owner, with his wife Kim McWane Friese, of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay for 16 years. Named for his children Devon and Taylor, Devotay is a community leader in sustainable cuisine and supporting local farmers and food artisans. Friese is a freelance food writer and photographer as well, with regular columns in 6 local, regional and national newspapers and magazines. His first book, A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland was published by in August, 2008 by Ice Cube Press, and his lates book, Chasing Chiles, was released by Chelsea Green Publishing in March, 2011. Read more >

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  1. A few things:

    1. You are assuming that it is the school lunches that make a kid fat. It isn't breakfast at home or dinner at home. It isn't snacks. It isn't a surplus of calories that doesn't get burned off. It's school lunches. For this to be true the school lunches that everybody eats must, on it's own, far exceed the daily caloric needs of each of those kids.

    2. Calories are units of energy that the body either uses or the fuel that makes up the calories gets stored as fat. So even if the kid over does it on his/her school lunch, they still have opportunities to burn off the extra calories through sports and other extra-curricular activities.

    3. "Since then though our nation’s school lunch program has become little more than a dumping ground for our tax-subsidized, corporate-owned, chemically-processed, fat-and-HFCS-laden surplus food-like substances."

    I've been in a plant that makes school food and it is the most scrutinized of any other product that is ran that day. The statement I quoted from this piece is the most cynical, knee-jerk, scientifically vacant sentence fragment I think I have ever read. There is no such thing as a food like substance. Something is either food or it is not.

    4. You want to increase the budget for school lunches because students are getting too fat? If students are getting too fat(heavy) then they needs less food or more exercise, so if anything, you would aim to reduce portion sizes which would require LESS money.

    "altering the nutritional guidelines to give the district foodservice directors the freedom to use more local, fresh meats and produce"

    This is the aim of increasing the budget? More local? Local is a great marketing tool for small farmers who want to sell their food at a premium in a niche market, but it is in no measurable way healthier. In fact, an amendment to currently proposed food regulation specifically frees small operations from having to prove their operations are safe, unlike larger operations. As David Acheson put's it, "It is asking for trouble...and it is not sound public health policy,"

    So you want to spend more money to get food that isn't any healthier while at the same time potentially subjecting school aged kids to a greater risk of food borne illness. All this while ignoring the central issues to reducing the number of greatly overweight students, activity level and caloric intake.
  2. Val
    It's a great idea, but I wonder if the military feed its soldiers any better than the average school lunch program. Check out the prologue and first chapter of "Imperial Life in the Emerald City" -- the author talks about the diet of the soldiers in Iraq and its not exactly fresh, wholesome food.
  3. Marine
    the problem here is not school food. the problem here is discipline. these kids are just plain fat. this is when, as a parent, you say "kid, youre fat, run your ass around the block til its fixed", and you stop feeding your damn kid. but those kind of parents dont raise fat children, do they?

    the problem here is lazy, spineless, undisciplined parents breeding children in their image. once your own saggy ass gets in the way of your day to day life, its time to make a change. whats worse is the children who grow up fat, and are undesirable to the opposite sex(or same sex, if thats what you like) before they even have an interest.

    kids grow up missing out on a large portion of normal growing experiences because of bad parenting letting them become fat. 250 lb. 10 year olds are not acceptable. developing diabetes before adulthood is not acceptable.

    when people dont care enough about their kids to feed them, their kids get taken away. i dont see why the reverse isnt true. if you dont care about your children enough to control what they eat, and teach them a proper diet, you should have your kids taken away. you are unfit parents if your child is morbidly obese.
  4. Marine

    in the documentary "Super Size Me" which i hope we are familiar with, it is shown very clearly the company who provides most of our schools lunches. this company is Sodexho, and as stated in the film, they are the same people who feed the federal prisons.

    what the film does not tell us, is Sodexho is also the same company who feeds every single chow hall in my beloved United States Marine Corps, and 99% of marines are in tip top shape. prison inmates are generally pretty fit individuals as well. Marines and felons have more things going on in their day than school kids, yet they find enough time to balance a proper diet and exercise.
  5. Mr. Vance,

    I do not assume a thing. The Mission: Readiness report emphatically states its findings that school food is an important contributing factor. Heck, it’s right there in the title; “Too Fat to Fight: Retired Military Leaders Want Junk Food Out of America’s Schools.” From what I can tell from your statement, you did not read the report.

    Of course we all understand how calories work, and no one is suggesting that exercise is not an important activity for kids. But the point is that the school lunch program should not be making it harder for kids to be healthy. It should be an effective tool in that endeavor, not an obstacle.

    You say that you’ve “been in a plant that makes school food….” That is part of the point.
    Food is made on farms and in kitchens. Not in factories. Food is not a mere conglomeration of chemicals to be manipulated. It is literally who we are, and due in part to the school food system most of our kids are fast, cheap and easy. Your food science background has you seeing the forest as no more than a collection of trees.

    Also, someone who says “There is no such thing as a food like substance” has clearly never seen a Twinkie or Cheez Whiz or a chicken nugget.

    Your point #4 is illogical. I do not suggest they need either more or less food. I and many others contend they need better food. We cannot tell them one thing in health class then do another in the cafeteria and expect our kids to come away with the better lesson. That is base hypocrisy. Presented with the choice of whether to do their homework or play a video game most kids will choose the video game. Presented with the choice of the junk food or the healthy food, most will choose the junk food. This is because they are children and cannot yet make informed decisions. We can no more tell them to eat healthy and then present them with the food in today’s cafeterias than we can tell them not to smoke and then put cigarette vending machines in the schools.

    The amendment you refer to, the Tester amendment, protects the small processors from being run out of business by the big conglomerates. And when it comes to foodborne illness outbreaks, the industrial food kettle has no room whatsoever to call the local, sustainable food pot black.

    Lastly, you contend that local food is not healthier. Your food science background will surely tell you that foods, especially fruits and vegetables, begin to lose their nutritional value the moment they are harvested, and will lose more the more they are processed. Food grown closer to the kitchen door will always be fresher than the commodities picked before they are ripe and shipped to processing plants. All this before the 2-3 hours they spend languishing in hotboxes before being served to kids who have 5-10 minutes to eat it.
  6. Val,

    I in no way suggest that the military should run the school food system. In fact I'd love to see great improvements to their system as well. But kids are our highest priority, and we should spare no effort or expense in making sure that they develop healthy eating habits.

    In fact I'd prefer that not even the USDA handle the federal portion of the system, but rather that it be moved to a joint program of the the Dept. of Education and HHS, thus putting it in the hand of people more likely to have the kids' interests at heart rather than those of big agribusiness.

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