“An army marches on its stomach” – Napoleon
Except for the occasional military recruiting poster, public school cafeterias may seem far removed from the carnage-strewn streets of Iraq. But all those school lunch lines, subsidized meals, and little milk cartons are calibrated in an unexpected way to the body weight of the American G.I.
In the first decades of the 20th century, up to 40 percent of draftees for the U.S. armed forces were malnourished. To cut down on the number of recruits who were too scrawny to fight, the federal government launched a national school lunch program in 1946 to provide youngsters with at least one square meal a day. Like the nation’s interstate highway system, our school meal programs were originally justified as a form of national security. Each bite of hash browns or soggy green beans was a tiny blow against the commies.
The program served its purpose, perhaps too well. The sort of malnutrition that marked the generation of students raised during the great depression is much rarer today. Today’s students are fat and happy. Well, at least fat. Childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1970. And the Pentagon recently reported that its pool of potential recruits, while shrinking in numbers due to the continuing Iraq war, has swollen in body size. Twenty percent of men of recruiting age and 40 percent of women in the target age group weigh too much to be eligible for the armed forces.
So now obesity is being described as a security concern. There are already plenty of compelling reasons to improve school food without adding military readiness into the mix. But in a world of unending wars and vast U.S. military budgets, will the Pentagon’s desire for schools to graduate more lean, mean fighting machines add any new momentum to the push for healthier cafeterias?