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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?

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.