In Defense of School Lunch (and Our Nation)

December 02, 2009

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

A report came out last month that shows that 75 percent of 17 to 24 year-olds are not
eligible to enlist in the armed forces. There are many reasons for
this, but one of the most significant is obesity.
This made me think that the more things change, the more things stay the
same. 

Prior to World War II, military and
government leaders became concerned with the health of army recruits:
as a whole, they were malnourished. In order to bring the population
around with efforts needed to mobilize for war, in 1941 President
Franklin Roosevelt convened a White House Nutrition Conference for
Defense.

As Susan Levine wrote:

Chief
among the conference concerns, of course, was the health of army
recruits. Food and nutrition in this context were essential elements
not only to physical health but to the nation's “virility” and its
ability to defend itself. When the Selective Service Commission began
drafting young men for service… alarming numbers of boys were found
to be physically unfit… Surgeon General Parran warned that “the great
preponderance of boys who were rejected for the draft were found to be
boys who in earlier school life had poor nutrition.” It was clear that
these officials believed malnutrition to be a serious threat to the
nation's strength on the battlefront.

And five years later…

…in
June 1946, Congress created the National School Lunch Program “as a
measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of
the Nation's children and to encourage the domestic consumption of
nutritious agricultural commodities and other foods.”

And 63 years later (that's now – December 2009)…

According
to the latest Pentagon figures, a full 35 percent, or more than
one-third, of the roughly 31.2 million Americans aged 17 to 24 are
unqualified for military service because of physical and medical
issues. And, said Curt Gilroy, the Pentagon’s director of accessions, “the major component of this is obesity. We have an obesity crisis in the country. There’s no question about it.”

Things
have changed dramatically in the last 60 years, but what hasn't changed is that school food still plays an important role in addressing the health of our nation's children.

We currently have a 60-year-old system designed to get more calories to a malnourished student population, delivering too many calories to a student population facing record levels of obesity. Just
as the National School Lunch Program was established to deliver more
calories to malnourished children, it must now be adapted to provide
the kind of healthy meals that can help this generation of children
develop healthy eating habits for a lifetime.

We have a real opportunity to make this change with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act next year. Perhaps the armed forces will join the parents, teachers, students and advocates across the country calling for healthy reform in our school food system.