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Too Fat to Serve: How Our Unhealthy Food System Is Undermining the Military

Americans have become so overweight that a large percentage of young people no longer qualify for military service. How did we get here?
 
 
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Michael Pollan coined the term "vegetable-industrial complex" to describe our corporate-driven food system decades after President Eisenhower warned us of the “military-industrial complex.” For much of that time, one served the other. President Truman created the National School Lunch Program in 1946 to ensure that young men were healthy enough for military service and as a subsidy to agribusiness. Feeding hungry children was not reason enough to justify the creation of the program.

Mark Winne, author of Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty says, "That so many young men had such substandard diets that they were unfit for military service [during World War II] was a matter of national chagrin and a threat to national security. This was the impetus for the creation of the national meal program to feed malnourished children and thus to ensure the nation's future soldiers were fit to fight its battles."

America has come a long way since then. Nowadays, diet-related diseases are due to eating too much food, not too little. As such, the vegetable-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex have collided head on. Many of today's would-be recruits are too fat to serve, according to a new report by the non-profit Mission: Readiness. The report found that 75 percent of young people ages 17 to 24 are unable to enlist in the United States military. Over one-third of those unable to serve are unfit because they are overweight. The military turns away 15,000 potential recruits every year because they are too heavy. The U.S. spends more on defense than the entire rest of the world combined, and while much of our military largesse consists of machinery and contractors, the military still relies on a steady stream of recruits. This is particularly true now, as troops cycle through Iraq and Afghanistan again and again until many are no longer physically or mentally capable of returning for another tour of duty.

To find out how this happened, we should go back to the beginning of both "complexes"-- World War II. As the U.S. rapidly expanded its production capacity for the war effort, it essentially built up an industry that would have no one to sell to once the war was over. What do you do if you're a fighter jet manufacturer and your nation is no longer at war? Demand for your products is inherently going to be limited. You might even go out of business! That's where the two complexes come in. In some cases, the industries feeding the war effort just continued to grow and prosper as the U.S. entered into the Cold War and continued to stockpile arms and prepare for the war with the Soviet Union Americans were told was just around the corner. Other World War II inputs, like pesticides, were converted to civilian uses -- mostly agriculture.

The roots of pesticides go back as far as gas warfare in World War I, but that was nothing compared to the adoption of DDT after World War II. During World War II, malaria posed an enormous threat to U.S. troops in the Pacific and DDT was touted as the mosquito-killing hero that allowed us to overcome malaria so we could ultimately defeat the Japanese. (In reality, other tactics, such as draining standing water where mosquitoes bred, had begun to decrease the malaria threat before DDT reached the scene, but DDT got the credit for the victory.)

DDT's manufacturer, a Swiss company called Geigy, could not keep up with American demands for the pesticide, so the U.S. brokered a deal with other companies, including DuPont, Merck, and Monsanto, arranging for them to produce DDT for the war effort on the condition that they would be allowed to produce it after the war as well. In similar fashion, excess World War II planes became crop dusters and ammonia used for explosives was churned into our soil for fertilizer. Thus, the same war that birthed the military-industrial complex also gave rise to industrial agriculture, which produces the majority of food consumed in the U.S. today.

Just as the military-industrial complex relies on a bloated U.S. defense budget to keep it in business, the vegetable-industrial complex relies on the American people to purchase the massive quantities of food corporate farmers produce. It doesn't matter much to producers whether the food is eaten or thrown away (as a projected 40 percent of it is) so long as the food is grown, processed and paid for, and they pocket the profits. Often, very simple, healthy foods are turned into less healthy foods in order to make more money. Whole grains are refined and combined with sugar and artificial flavors and colors to make nutritionally lacking breakfast cereals, for example. Whereas the breakfast cereal is less healthy than its whole grain ingredients, whole grains cannot be branded, advertised, and sold for premium prices like Froot Loops or Lucky Charms. Furthermore, for food companies to report increased earnings to Wall Street every quarter, the U.S. population must eat more and more. And we do. In the last three decades, obesity has doubled among adults and tripled among children.

The U.S. government played a role in the buildup of the vegetable-industrial complex from the start, legalizing and promoting pesticides and fertilizers and then making policies that would favor large farms while putting small and mid-sized farms out of business. On the other end, the U.S. government approved processed foods containing questionable if not downright unhealthy ingredients, sometimes even after the ingredients were proven harmful. For example, artificial food dyes are linked with behavioral problems in children, and while they are illegal in some countries, they are perfectly legal here. The U.S. government also buys up surplus commodities and distributes them to the National School Lunch Program. The commodities purchased for the school lunch program turn the food pyramid on its head, providing schools with a lot of meat and dairy but very few fruits and vegetables. While that made perfect sense back when we were a nation worrying about having enough to eat, it no longer makes sense now that we are a nation plagued with obesity. Feeding our kids too much of the wrong foods is causing massive problems, as obesity skyrockets.

Unfortunately, these two "complexes" share the same target: teenage boys. The same segment of our population that the military wants to enlist is also remarkable in their ability to eat large quantities of unhealthy food. (This is true to a lesser extent with teenage girls.) Thus, the two complexes have collided head on.

In decades past, the National School Lunch Program served both complexes, providing a market for Big Agribusiness and protecting America's youth from malnutrition. But now it's clear that both our military and our food systems need reforming. Spending half of our budget on defense serves nobody except for defense contractors, and the food produced by corporate agriculture has resulted in an epidemic of diet-related health problems. In order to raise healthy young people who are capable not just of military service but of leading productive lives in all segments of society, we must take measures that will reduce the profits of the vegetable-industrial complex and create a food system in which health comes before the corporate bottom line.

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It.