Retired Generals and Admirals Tell Congress: Just Say No To Pizza as a Vegetable in School Lunches

Washington, D.C. (November 14, 2011) – Citing Defense Department estimates that 1 in 4 young adults is too overweight to join the military, more than 100 retired generals and admirals urged Congress today to reject new efforts from special interests to get Congress to create a “pizza loophole” that treats the tomato paste on pizza as a serving of vegetables on school lunch menus.

Obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for military service, and children get up to 40% of their daily calories during the school day.

“We are outraged that Congress is seriously considering language that would effectively categorize pizza as a vegetable in the school lunch program.  It doesn’t take an advanced degree in nutrition to call this a national disgrace,” said Amy Dawson Taggart, director of the national security nonprofit Mission: Readiness.  ”This is more than just a food fight on Capitol Hill.  This new effort to undermine school nutrition regulations raises national security concerns.”

In a letter to Congress, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hugh Shelton joined more than 100 other retired generals and admirals who are members of Mission: Readiness in stating: “We urge you to reject any language…that would weaken the proposed guidelines for school meals or derail the implementation process.”

This is not the first time that military leaders have asked policymakers to address the nutritional needs of our youth as a matter of national security.  After World War II the National School Lunch Program was enacted in part due to the poor nourishment of would-be recruits.

“Given that the USDA has spent the past year finalizing science-based standards to limit salt, unhealthy fats, and calories and include more nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as part of school cafeteria menus, you’d think we’d be off to the races and kids would soon be eating much healthier food at school.  Instead, we appear to be reliving the past battles over ketchup as a vegetable.  If schools — or industry lobbyists — want to count pizza as a vegetable, they should make a pizza that meets vegetable standards, not tamper with the standards to create a pizza loophole,” said Dawson Taggart.

“This is a tragedy for the country,” said retired four-star Air Force General Richard E. Hawley, who is a member of Mission: Readiness. “We are taking a step backward apparently in response to pressure from groups who see it in their interest to serve junk food in our schools.”

With so many young adults overweight, Hawley said America’s obesity epidemic is a threat to national security.

“The issue is, are we serving a balanced diet?” Hawley said. “There’s nothing wrong with the occasional french fry,  but we need to make sure there’s more to the school diet than a pizza with a little dash of tomato sauce on it.”

Read the Associated Press story
Read article in Washington Post
Read article on ABC News’ The Note
Read article in Education Week
Read The Hill’s blog post

Read editorials in Louisville Courier-Journal, San Jose Mercury News, San Diego Union-Tribune, The Star-Ledger (NJ), The Record (NJ), Express-Times (PA),  Journal Star (NE), Asheville Citizen-Times (NC) & Press-Enterprise (CA)

Full text of letter to Congress:

Dear Senators Reid and McConnell and Representatives Boehner and Pelosi:

MISSION: READINESS is the non-partisan, national security organization of over 260 retired Admirals and Generals and other senior military leaders. We are deeply concerned by alarming data from the Department of Defense indicating that 75 percent of all young Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are unable to join the military because they are physically unfit, lack proper education, or have criminal records. A shrinking pool of eligible recruits is a threat to our national security, and we are troubled by the impact that this will have on our future military preparedness.

As Congress enters into conference negotiations on legislation containing final FY 2012 Agriculture appropriations, we urge you reject any language that is inconsistent with the Senate approved spending bill and that would weaken the proposed guidelines for school meals or derail the implementation process.

Obesity is the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service.  Otherwise excellent recruit prospects are being turned away because they are simply too heavy. Today, one in three American children aged 10 to 17 is overweight or obese and roughly one quarter of all Americans aged 17 to 24 is too heavy to join the military.

In order to effectively prevent obesity, we must address the root causes of this epidemic. Millions of children buy breakfast, lunch, and snacks in school every day. In fact, research published in Health Affairs shows that as much as 40 percent of a child’s daily caloric intake occurs at school. Properly managed, the school environment can be instrumental in fostering healthful eating habits for our children.

Congress took a monumental step in the right direction last year with the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (P.L. 111-296). This law called for critical changes to nutrition standards for foods and beverages served in schools. Supporting the USDA as that agency implements new science-based standards for school meals is critical if we are to help curb the obesity epidemic that is causing so many young Americans to be ineligible for military service. Strong standards concerning the food available in schools, along with increased physical activity, will help ensure that more young Americans have the tools they need to maintain a healthy weight and become eligible for military service, should they choose that career path.

It is important that we do not overlook investments that are crucial to our nation’s long-term health and security. To be sure, our military stands ready to protect against those who would threaten our security. But in order to sustain our military strength for the future, we must ensure that upcoming generations of Americans will be fit to serve in a 21st century military.

Very Respectfully,

Mission: Readiness Members