LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Hold the mystery meat: Military mess halls soon will be serving more fruits, vegetables and low-fat dishes under the first program in 20 years to improve nutrition standards across the armed services.
First lady Michelle Obama and Pentagon officials announced the effort Thursday during a visit to Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, where the military has been experimenting with ways to improve the quality and variety of foods served on base. The first lady toured a gleaming cafeteria line, then announced the program in a dining hall filled with service members whose plates were overflowing with salad greens, broccoli and whole grains.
"You all look really good, really fit," she told the airmen. "Thank you for eating your vegetables. We need you strong."
She encouraged healthy habits during a visit with individual airmen at their tables.
"Don't worry, you'll be a vegetable guy soon," she reassured one airman.
She stressed that it's not just about giving members of the armed services a more svelte profile: There are big national security and budget implications.
About a quarter of entry-level candidates for the military are too overweight to serve or to make it through their first enlistment, according to the Pentagon. And the Defense Department spends $1.1 billion a year on medical care related to excess weight and obesity.
Under the Military Health System's new obesity and nutrition awareness campaign, more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and lower-fat entrees will be coming to the 1,100 service member dining halls across the United States in coming months. Healthier choices will be turning up in base schools, vending machines and snack bars, too, affecting more than 1.5 million service members.
Mrs. Obama, who has been leading a campaign against childhood obesity, said the military effort would send a message to the whole nation.
"When you make healthy eating a priority in your lives, the rest of us are more likely to make it a priority in our lives," she told the airmen.
The first lady was visiting Little Rock as part of a three-day national tour marking the second anniversary of her "Let's Move" campaign. She made a stop earlier in the day in Des Moines, Iowa to meet with an arena full of schoolchildren at a pep rally for healthy eating and exercise.
Under the new program, each of the armed services will be asked to update menu standards for the first time in two decades and to ensure that healthier food choices are available.
"We are intent on focusing on preventable illnesses to help our people stay out of our clinics and hospitals by improving their physical condition," said Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
He said surveys in the mid-1990s found that about 1 out of 50 members of the armed services had weight problems. By about 2005, the figure was 1 in 20 service members.