When schools began lunch programs in the 1940s, their focus wasn’t on education. It was on national security.
Major General Lewis Hershey testified to Congress in 1945 that the military rejected at least 40 percent of recruits during World War II because of reasons related to poor nutrition. The next year, Congress established the National School Lunch Program to ensure children had access to nutritious meals.
That program has been a staple of schools since and has been expanded in many schools to include breakfast. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, proper nutrition has once again become hard to come by for some young people and narrowed the recruitment pool for the military.
Mission: Readiness, a national organization with 750 retired admirals and generals, recently released its 2020 report, Breaking Point: Child Malnutrition Imperils America’s National Security, that explains how the pandemic has affected those facing food insecurity and child hunger.
“Only 1 percent of American citizens serve in the military, but it’s so important that civilian society understands who we are and what we need from society to make us successful in the future,” said Rear Admiral (Ret.) Kathleen Dussault, U.S. Navy, a Mission: Readiness member who lives in Henderson.
The report details that 71 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service for a variety of reasons. The three leading disqualifying factors are being overweight, lacking adequate education or having a history of crime or drug use.
Being overweight disqualifies 31 percent of those in that age range, and obesity is a problem that often stems from malnutrition. It’s a problem that is expected to be exacerbated by the pandemic and a more sedentary lifestyle among children in general, meaning the number of those who are ineligible to serve could increase in the next generation.
Dussault was a logistician during her career in the Navy and making sure there was enough food on the ship was one of her responsibilities. She said she’d sometimes show up on the chow line to make sure enlisted officers had something green on their plate, so making sure people are well-fed has been important to her for a long time.
After all, she said, quoting Napoleon, “An army travels on its stomach.”
The report estimates that up to 18 million children will experience food insecurity because of increases in unemployment and child poverty from the pandemic, up from 11 million two years ago.
Major General (Ret.) Marcia Anderson, U.S. Army, who took part in a recent webinar that included four Mission: Readiness members, said when families can’t find enough money for food, they’re forced to stretch it.
“That means they’ll buy the cheapest food, which is not always the most nutritious food,” she said. “They’ll eat things that are just not healthy for their children. COVID-19 has just been additional gasoline on this fire.”
Anderson said many children receive most, if not all, of their meals from school and some receive supplemental backpacks to take home food for the weekend that they share with their siblings.
The House recently passed an $8 billion measure that provides for a pandemic-related program, funding subsidized meals for children who would normally receive them when schools are open and other nutrition assistance.
Dussault applauded that move, but said it only matters if those funds are properly used at the local level. She said she has been impressed by programs like Communities in Schools, which goes door to door to identify children in need and distribute food to them.
“It is incredibly important that people at the local level are recognizing the problem and doing something about it,” Dussault said.