War and Peas: Why Childhood Obesity is a Matter of National Security

It's a good thing Michelle Obama's arms are so fabulously fit, because she's just signed on to do some serious heavy lifting. At Tuesday's White House launch of the Let's Move campaign, the First Lady declared her ambition to end childhood obesity within a generation:

I don't want our kids to live diminished lives because we failed to step up today. I don't want them looking back decades from now and asking us, why didn't you help us when you had a chance? Why didn't you put us first when it mattered most?

So much of what we all want for our kids isn't within our control. We want them to succeed in everything they do. We want to protect them from every hardship and spare them from every mistake. But we know we can't do all of that. What we can do...what is fully within our control...is to give them the very best start in their journeys. What we can do is give them advantages early in life that will stay with them long after we're gone. As President Franklin Roosevelt once put it: "We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future."

That is our obligation, not just as parents who love our kids, but as citizens who love this country.

I applaud the First Lady's attempt to rally the nation by casting this crisis as a problem that ought to concern any self-proclaimed patriot. But I'm really glad she didn't name the campaign the War on Waistlines, because we're already overextended in the metaphorical war department, what with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty. Not to mention the actual wars we're waging in the Middle East.

Or maybe we should mention them, because, as Michelle Obama noted on Tuesday, "Military leaders report that obesity is now one of the most common disqualifiers for military service."

Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit, bi-partisan organization of senior retired military leaders who believe that "the most effective long-term investment we can make for a strong military is in the health and education of the American people," flatly declares that being overweight is "the Number 1 reason why potential recruits are unable to enlist in the armed services," adding this shocking statistic:

75% of young Americans are ineligible to serve their country because they have either failed to graduate high school, engaged in criminal activity, or are physically or mentally unfit.

This is no laughing matter, despite George Saunder's painfully funny Heavy Artillery piece in last month's New Yorker, a fictitious dispatch from an out-of-shape, soda-swilling soldier too preoccupied by snack attacks to fend off enemy fire.

Whether you're a hawk or a dove, surely we can all agree that we've done our children a terrible disservice by allowing poor nutrition and physical inactivity to become the norm. If three quarters of our kids aren't fit to serve in the military, you've got to wonder how well equipped are they to succeed in civilian life?

Decent jobs may be in short supply now, but supposing we could even get our economy back on track and create rewarding employment opportunities, what are we doing to prepare our youth for those good jobs?

And what good do the billions of dollars we devote to military preparedness do us if our kids are in such lousy shape that only one quarter of our youth are fit to serve? As Michelle Obama pointed out:

If kids aren't getting adequate nutrition, even the best textbooks and teachers in the world won't help them learn. If they don't have safe places to run and play, and they wind up with obesity-related conditions, then those health care costs will just keep rising...

...we know that solving our obesity challenge won't be easy - and it certainly won't be quick. But make no mistake about it, this problem can be solved.

This isn't like a disease where we're still waiting for the cure to be discovered - we know the cure for this. This isn't like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet - it doesn't take some stroke of genius or feat of technology. We have everything we need, right now, to help our kids lead healthy lives. Rarely in the history of this country have we encountered a problem of such magnitude and consequence that is so eminently solvable.

We could start by allocating more money to provide healthy school lunches, as Slow Food USA, The Healthy Schools Campaign, The LunchBox, and dozens of other organizations have been calling on the USDA to do.

Imagine if, instead of subsidizing the commodity crops that form the cornerstone of our disease-inducing food chain, we channeled that money into the production of wholesome foods that would provide our kids with the nutrients they need?

And if we provided kids with appealing outdoor activities and regular recess, we might be able to whittle down the number of hours they spend watching TV and being bombarded with junk food advertising, which has been shown to encourage more unhealthy eating habits.

These may be common sense solutions, but to implement them we'll need to address a number of significant obstacles: insufficient access to affordable fresh produce; our addiction to convenience foods and a too-busy culture that doesn't leave time for real meals; a lack of basic cooking skills; and agricultural policies that favor processed foods.

Nutrition professor Marion Nestle found much to commend in the Let's Move campaign, which has the potential to put these issues on the front burner.

The campaign's success will depend on whether Michelle Obama and the many other participants in Let's Move can motivate parents and children to alter deeply ingrained habits.

But it can be done--there is a precedent. As the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in the Washington Post:

...it is a challenging goal, indeed, but the percentage of American smokers dropped from 42 percent in 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry revealed the dangers of cigarette smoking to the American public, to less than 20 percent in 2007...Americans have shown a willingness to become healthier; on the issue of childhood obesity, we can do it again.

So, if you really want to serve our country, you can start by serving real food. The Let's Move campaign is a serious call to arms, toned or not. Let's hope the nation heeds it.

Originally published on The Green Fork