If the obesity epidemic in America has escaped your notice, consider this: one in every four young adults ages 17 to 24 is considered too overweight to enlist in the military.
In addition, the military spends over a billion dollars a year on weight-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, not to mention medical conditions resulting from compromised physical fitness.
To the group of senior retired military leaders of the nonprofit group Mission: Readiness, these factors contribute to a burgeoning threat to national security, and the junk food sold in school cafeteria a la carte lines and vending machines is a significant contributor to the problem.
According to a USDA survey, students consume almost 400 billion calories from these “competitive” foods (those not sold as part of the National School Lunch Program menu) – that’s a weight of almost 90,000 tons – more than the aircraft carrier Midway. Limiting these foods, say the members of Mission: Readiness, including former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen (Ret) Richard Myers, is only part of an overall solution to the obesity crisis, which must include healthier school meals and parents’ efforts to help children develop lifelong healthy eating habits. Mission: Readiness strongly supported the changes to school lunches now being implemented through the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, but says the second act of this play is getting the junk food out of a la carte lines and vending machines and replacing it with more nutritious options.
“It is unlikely that the schools can successfully educate children about the need to improve their eating habits if the schools contradict that message by continuing to sell junk food,” states a newly released Mission: Readiness report. The report cites the successes of multi-faceted efforts in school districts such as New York City, Philadelphia, and Mississippi in which obesity rates declined when junk food was removed as part of nutrition and physical activity initiatives.
The concern, of course, for schools is the prospect of lost revenues if these foods, especially vending, are removed. In many cases, these sales go to support extra-curricular programs. Encouragingly, those schools that have made the switch to healthier offerings have found participation rates increase. In New York, for example, a pilot vending program serving fresh fruit was an instant hit, selling out almost every day. That would suggest that, in reality, students are craving more nutritious options, but are buying what’s available because it’s what’s available and they are hungry. While school lunches must now follow more rigorous guidelines with higher amounts of fruit and vegetables offered, the quality of those lunches has changed little. Most school districts, including Fairfax County, continue to serve highly processed food with artificial additives and preservatives that cannot deliver the nourishment value of fresh, whole foods, even if they do meet USDA standards.
Naturally, there are those in the “hands off my food” camp who believe the government shouldn’t be messing with what their kids want to eat. But who genuinely wants their kids to eat an excess of unhealthy foods – especially 400 billion calories worth? Who wants their kids to be overweight or obese or suffer chronic health problems that are related to dietary choices? And while there is still a long way to go toward improving what can be served in our cafeteria lines, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids act is, one would hope, is the first of many improvement in decades to the school food system. At its best, HHFK should serve as a bold model for healthy whole foods choices that our kids will carry with them for a lifetime, but there’s much work still to be done there.
Removing the junk food from a la carte lines and vending machines in our schools can be part of the solution to America’s obesity crisis. Even if your child has no plans for military service, isn’t the fight against fat one we all want to win?
For more information, visit Mission: Readiness
Mary Porter is a nutrition counselor living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org