Why Johnny Can't March: School Food as National Security Threat

07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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.

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 of 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.