Tater Tots and Tanks
Few policy issues are as as uncontroversial as the idea that the federal government should provide some kind of national defense. Realizing that funding the military is almost universally considered to be a federal obligation, advocates of other policies try to piggyback on that popular support by associating their programs with defense or comparing their concerns to a battlefield.
The latest example is this essay in the Huffington Post by Debra Eschmeyer, Media Director of the National Farm to School Network. Eschmeyer argues for a direct link between school lunches and national security:
Do tater tots, pizza, and soda rise to the level of calling in Janet Napolitano or David Petraeus? Oddly, yes, because the National School Lunch Program was originally created to promote “nutrition in the national defense,” as a solution to young men who were unfit for service in WWI and WWII. The lunch line was actually designed to prepare soldiers for the front lines. (And sadly, 27 percent of the population for military service today are too obese/overweight to serve).
Eschmeyer then turns her attention away from history and calls for a “fight” against poor nutrition.
Is Eschmeyer correct that we need better cafeteria food to keep out foreign invaders? I don’t think so. There are many other factors that prevent people from joining the military, such as criminal records, lack of education, and health problems that are not related to food (including poor eyesight, mental illness, and others). It’s worth noting that the report Eschmeyer cites about military service recommends expanding preschool education in an effort to improve graduation rates, but makes no mention of school lunches.
Fortunately, we don’t need a large percentage of the population to defend the country right now, so it doesn’t really matter that so many people can’t serve for one reason or another. Problems like obesity don’t determine whether we have a military, but which people are employed by it. As a country, we can still enjoy the benefits of national defense. The only people who lose out when the army excludes lots of overweight people are the overweight people who want to serve. And if someone wants to join the armed forces but is barred by weight, he can make nutritional or other lifestyle changes to improve his fitness. In this sense, overweight people are in a better position than others who are disqualified, because it’s possible for them to bring their weight down to military standards through their own initiative.
The fact that a small percentage of the population is eligible for military service can be a good thing, depending on how you look at it. It means that we are living in such a peaceful time in history that our military can afford to be selective, excluding people who don’t have quite enough education or whose weight is just a little higher than the ideal.
The defense argument for better school lunches doesn’t pass inspection. If states like Missouri think kindergartners don’t eat enough vegetables, they shouldn’t frame that as a national security crisis. There’s no need to call in the federal government — or to call forth the militia.