Thursday, September 27, 2012

Food fight! Nanny state vs. national security -- Sept. 27, 2012 column


The nanny state was undiscovered territory when Congress passed and President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in June 1946.

The law was good for children and farmers, the president said. The military wanted it because it was good for national security.

During World War II, more than 40 percent of rejected military recruits were sent home because they were malnourished.

Today, our platter-sized plates and our gargantuan soda cups runneth over. Rather than being too malnourished, our young Americans are too overweight to enlist. One in four can’t qualify for service.

Obesity, not malnourishment, is our national security issue. More than 300 retired generals and admirals joined a group called Mission: Readiness to goad Congress into taking steps to try to stem the childhood obesity epidemic by improving nutrition in schools.

The group’s 2010 report, “Too Fat to Fight,” pressed Congress for healthier school lunches. For once, Congress listened. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, supported by first lady Michelle Obama, reforms the school lunch program for the first time in 30 years.

New rules requiring more fruits and vegetables, lower-fat milk and less bread and condiments went into effect this fall in schools around the country. It’s America so naturally there have been protests. Students and teachers at a school in Kansas produced a video that has gone viral. Critics are eager to map -- and disarm -- the nanny state.

''This is the nanny state personified,'' declared Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who said constituents tell him their kids are starving in school and are being rationed on calories. King wants to repeal the law.

Really? Under the new rules, a high school lunch must not exceed 850 calories, compared with 825 calories under the old guidelines. Elementary pupils, in kindergarten through fifth grade, now get up to 650 calories at lunch.

Mission: Readiness wants Congress to take more action to curb obesity. This week the group released a follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” asking that the government expel junk food from school. Schools sell more than 400 billion empty calories a year, outside the lunch program, in school stores, snack lines and vending machines, the report said.

Again, the brass says, it’s a national security issue.

The military leaders recognize that parents are their children’s first teachers and role models, but parents can’t control junk food at school. America’s children consume up to half their daily calories at school, so stopping the flow of junk food there could be significant.

For the military, overweight isn’t just a recruitment problem. The United States has the highest rate overweight and obese men among major countries -- three in four men are overweight or obese. The Defense Department spends $1.1 billion a year treating diabetes, heart disease and other medical problems related to obesity for service members, their families and veterans.

And problems with staffing the volunteer military go beyond weight, says Richard B. Myers, a retired Air Force general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“When weight problems are combined with other disqualifying factors, like failing to finish high school or being convicted of a serious crime, an estimated 75 percent of Americans age 17 to 24 are not able to join the military,” Myers wrote in an op-ed in Politico.

Three in four young Americans can’t qualify to serve? That’s appalling. We must do more to help kids stay in school and qualify for the military training and personal confidence that service can provide.

We can start with soda.

Three studies in the latest New England Journal of Medicine link obesity to sugary sodas. The American Beverage Association insists that the industry already has reduced sales in schools and no single food or drink is responsible for the obesity epidemic.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York has riled many with his quest to ban gigantic sodas. Starting in March, unless a judge intervenes, New Yorkers will not be able to buy supersized sodas at restaurants, on the street or in movie theaters.

To hear some conservatives, you’d think our God-given rights include the freedom to scarf and guzzle vast quantities of anything and everything without any government interference whatsoever.

Seriously, does that make sense -- with health care costs skyrocketing, with three of four American men overweight or obese?

Does anyone really need more than 16 ounces of a soft drink at a time? The original Coca-Cola bottle held about 6 ounces. If you’re still thirsty, drink water.

In this great country, there will always be another soda. But we don’t have to drink it right now.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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