Obesity – a threat to national security as well as health?

Back in the age of harvest gold and avocado green appliances, school cafeterias were bad, real bad.

Children sat at lunch tables wearing double-knit polyester and bell-bottom pants. They didn’t question the mushy green beans on their plates or the plasticity of the “cheese” on their pizza. They just took it in as part of the aesthetics of the time, like driving a Pinto or dancing the disco.

Life was simple then, and it went something like this: As a child, it was your job to suffer, and by suffer, I mean you were made to eat all of your vegetables, mushy though they be, and rinse your plate off, too, and when you grew big and strong enough to outrun your parents, then you rebelled. There was no such thing as lunches consisting of nachos and Mountain Dew. That came later, in college.

Meat coming out of school cafeterias looked pre-chewed and was usually plopped on a piece of toast, or rice, or whatever white starch was on hand.

This culinary exercise was executed, at least in my case, by a woman whose hair net covered her face like a bride, although no docile bride she. If I remember correctly, her name was Luby, and no teeth were required to eat what she prepared.

Fast forward a few decades, and witness the evolution of the cafeteria lunch: Kids in Tacoma Public Schools are now being treated to “whole-grain pasta,” “rice pilaf” and “fresh kiwi fruit.” Ol’ Luby wouldn’t have known a kiwi fruit if it hit her between the eyes. Fruit came from a can, end of story.

But improvements in school lunches have not come fast enough for a group of retired army officers, who stated last week that school cafeterias are no less than a threat to national security.

Picture yesterday’s Sloppy Joe projected up on 30 screens in the Pentagon’s nerve center. A high-ranking security officer barks, “Due to the insidious nature of ‘Tater Tots,’ the terror alert has been elevated from orange to brown. Yes, you heard me sir, we have a code brown.”

Jokes aside, the sharp rise in obesity over the last 15 years has had a direct effect on the military’s ability to fill its ranks. Potential recruits are denied entry into the armed forces because they are too chubby for the physical rigor required of soldiers. Sit-ups entail that one is actually able to, well, sit up. But are school cafeterias really to blame for this? No question school lunches have contributed to the rise in obesity – give kids the option of soda and chips, burgers and fries, and they see nothing else on the menu. These retired military officers are pushing for healthier fare, but I fear it’s going to take more than a salad bar and tofu tacos in school cafeterias to solve the nation’s obesity problem.

As noble as tofu tacos are, they may end up in the garbage, because kids don’t like to eat stuff they’ve never seen or tasted before, which is why the real work needs to come from us, from our kitchen tables, from our community. Getting kids involved in community gardens is a good start. Check out Tacoma’s Growing Conversation Newsletter, and see that seven new community gardens are sprouting up. These are places where kids can get dirty and discover the joys of growing their own food. And for those of us who want nothing to do with hoes and such, shopping at a farmer’s market makes for a nice alternative.

Ah, but the truth is, it’s always going to be an uphill battle. We humans are hard-wired to love fat and sugar, and we tend to like things fast and easy, which means we’ve got ourselves a nice recipe for cellulite. Sure, we can clean up school lunches, but we may never find a way to make broccoli compete with that biological imperative known as “me want sugar.” However, by citing such startling statistics, like 27 percent of all Americans age 17-24 are too heavy to join the military, the retired vets are right when they say obesity is a national security risk.

Though admittedly delicious, the tater tot should be looked at anew. And once again, vegetables should be required eating on every table. And if our kids complain, we can tell them it could be worse. They could be eating their vegetables wearing bell-bottom pants and dancing to disco.

Karen Irwin of University Place is a frequent contributor to these pages and to the Inside Opinion blog: blog.thenewstribune.com/opinion.


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