I picked up the Wyoming Tribune Eagle this past Wednesday (75 cents, damnit!) because of a front-page article stating that unhealthy school lunches could be a threat to national security. I had to read this article!
School lunches = security threat?
Report says U.S. kids in no shape to help military
By Mary Clare Jalonick
WASHINGTON--Too fat to fight? Many American children are so overweight from being fed French fries, pizza and other unhealthy foods at school lunchrooms that they cannot handle the physical rigors of being in the military, a group of retired officers say in a new report.
National security is threatened by the sharp rise in obesity rates for young people over the last 15 years, the group Mission: Readiness contends. Weight problems are now the leading medical reason that recruits are rejected, the group says, and thus jeopardize the military's ability to fill its ranks.
In a report released Tuesday, the group says that 9 million young adults, or 27 percent of all Americans ages 17 to 14, are too fat to join the military. The retired officers were on Capitol Hill advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation's school lunches healthier.
The military group acknowledges that other things keep young adults out of the armed services, such as a criminal record or the lack of a high-school diploma.
Although all branches of the military now meet or exceed recruitment goals, retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr., a member of the officers group, says the obesity trend could affect that.
"When over a quarter of young adults are too fat to fight, we need to take notice," Barnett said. He noted that national security in the year 2030 is "absolutely dependent" on reversing child obesity rates.
Recruitment isn't the only problem posed by obesity. According to the report, the government spends tens of millions of dollars every year to train replacements for service members discharged because of weight problems.
This isn't the first time the military has gotten involved in the debate over school lunches. During World War II, military leaders had the opposite problem, reporting that many recruits were rejected because of stunted growth and inadequate nutrition. After the war, military leaders pushed Congress to establish the national school lunch program so children would grow up healthier.
The program was established in 1946, "as a measure of national security," according to the original bill language.
Today, the group is urging Congress to eliminate junk food and high-calorie beverages from schools, put more money into the school lunch program and develop new strategies that help children develop healthier habits.
The school lunch bill, currently awaiting a Senate vote, would establish healthier options for all foods in schools, including vending machine items. The legislation would spend $4.5 billion more over 10 years for nutrition programs.
The Army is already doing its part to catch the problem earlier, working with high schoolers and interested recruits to lose weight before they are eligible for service, says U.S. Army Recruiting Command's Mark Howell. He added that he had to lose 10 pounds himself before he joined the military.
"This is the future of our Army we are looking at when we talk about these 17- to 24-year olds," Howell said. "The sad thing is a lot of them want to join but can't."
(Mission: Readiness http://www.missionreadiness.org)
That's the article. What I first read and nearly wrote off became something that we should all truly be worried about. If you think the worst of our wars are behind us, think again. My nephews don't have physical education every day in school like I did when I was their age. Hell, I am a soldier and I'm struggling to get my weight back down into the acceptable range! To think that, in another decade or so, we won't be able to staff our military is a scary thought.
There's more to this than what's printed in the article. The consequences our health suffers as a result of obesity are only going to become more severe going forward. For every fitness personality that releases a sure-fire workout DVD program, for every winner on The Biggest Loser, there are many more Americans who choose to live the "comfortable" lifestyle and remain obese. For too long I've been one of them.
Sure, it's easier to just stuff my face with whatever strikes my fancy, to play video games all day, and to let myself get bigger. That's simple. That's a no-brainer. That's what I did for over 4 years after getting off of active duty. When I rejoined the military last year, I was overweight. When I took my last PT test, I failed. I've failed every tape test they've given me in the Guard. And I'm a former soldier, a former pro-wrestler, a formerly active person.
Where did we go wrong? I'm not going to blame video games, reality TV, and teen magazines for why the youth of the nation are sitting around all day. I blame the parents for taking the easy way out. I need only look at my customers to see it in action. There's this big woman and her fat daughter that come into my work all the time, and they never purchase anything healthy. The girl lives on Pepsi and whatever chips and candies she can whine about until her mother gives in, takes the easy path, and buys her what she wants. I saw it at Wegmans, I saw it at GameStop, I see it now. It's easier to give in and give the child whatever she wants than to discipline her and possibly have the little brat make a scene. And the child suffers because she gets what she wants.
I don't keep sweets in the house. My fridge is full of water, natural fruit juices, and (when I have money to go grocery shopping) healthier food choices. I don't buy chips; I have organic crackers and cheese (which I eat in moderation). I buy soda once in a blue moon, and usually for other people to drink. Right now I have some chocolate that my Oma and my aunt in Germany sent me as an Easter care-package. The point is that I don't want my son to grow up in an environment of junk food and over-processed "nutrition." I don't want my wife and I to live like that, either. And as I can afford it, I will continue to make even healthier food choices.
There's one of the problems. A 1-liter bottle of water costs MORE than 1 liter of PowerAde. Twinkies are cheaper than a bunch of bananas. The over-processed, HFCS-laden, unhealthy foods far outnumber healthier choices, and the truly good-for-you stuff like Pom Wonderful is just too expensive for most people. Following that thread, the school lunch initiative that Mission: Readiness is proposing will surely fail! Kids today are so used to eating junk food that they will piss and moan when forced to eat good food (recent studies have shown this), they'll complain to their parents, who will in turn either brown-bag some unhealthy food for their kids or (more likely, since it requires less work and more bitching) complain to the school boards until the junk food is back on the lunch trays.
I know I'm painting this in a rather hopeless light, but I don't believe it to be so. There is a way to reverse this trend and to help make America healthier. It starts with people my age, adults with young children. The first step is to live what I'm preaching; buy less junk food, watch your portion size, eat as healthy as your budget allows (which might mean passing on other things to put better food on the table, like cigarettes or going to the bars all weekend). This is difficult, I admit--I love Twinkies, I love cheeseburgers, I love Rockstar Cola. I know this stuff is no good for me, and I know it's part of the reason I'm struggling to reverse over 4 years of damage that sort of eating did to my body. It's hard work, and there are days I want to give up. Luckily, I can't--if I do, I can get dishonorably separated from the military, something I refuse to allow to happen. Most Americans don't have that kind of sword floating over their heads.
Once we get ourselves squared away (or on the road to recovery, such as myself), we need to instill good habits in our children. NOW. Not when they're older; start when they're Milo's age. I remember Nina damn near killed my mother when she gave Milo some icing from a cake once. By not keeping bad foods in the house I can raise him to like good food. I won't be able to control what he eats at a friend's house, but I am the dictator of my own household, and under my roof I can ensure a healthier diet for my children. If more people thought this way, then we wouldn't have to worry about what our kids are eating at the Nelsons' house--because the Nelsons would have healthy food, too.
As we revolutionize our homes, we can more easily extend our reach to external places, such as restaurants and school lunches. Some of this is happening already, with some restaurants offering nutritional information on their menus (isn't that going to be mandatory soon?). It has to start at home before it can truly make a difference, however.
I'm not saying give up on Twinkies completely. I still love them. I had a Twinkie the other day--my first in probably a year. That's moderation for you!
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