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Why We Agree With Retired Military Leaders

When retired military officers are advocating for food reform in our schools, you know there’s a serious problem. Recently a group of retired generals, admirals, and other U.S. Armed Forces called Mission: Readiness released a report, titled “Too Fat to Fight,” that argues that junk food and sugary drinks that are sold in school vending machines are a major reason why the military is having a hard time finding fit recruits.

That’s not surprising, knowing what’s available in vending machines in New York City schools:

  • Brown-Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts: 200 calories, calories from Fat 60, 12 grams of sugar, ingredients include polydextrose, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and corn syrup solids.
  • Cheerios Cereal Bar Strawberry: 150 calories, calories from fat 30, 10 grams of sugar, ingredients include fructose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, gelatin, Red 40, maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavor.
  • Doritos Cool Ranch Reduced Fat: 130 calories, calories from fat 45, ingredients include corn syrup solids, monosodium glutamate, dextrose, artificial color including Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5, and natural and artificial flavors.
  • Doritos Spicy Nachos: 140 calories, calories from Fat 50, ingredients include monosodium glutamate, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, dextrose, artificial coloring including Yellow 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6, Yellow 5, Red 40, Blue 1, natural and artificial flavor.
  • Linden’s Butter Crunchers Cookies: 150 calories, calories from Fat 51, 10.75 grams of sugar, ingredients include corn syrup and maltodextrin.

As we have argued, it’s not the occasional sweet at a school bake sale that is causing childhood obesity, it’s the food our children are consuming every day. When today’s parents went to middle school and high school, there were bake sales, but there were no vending machines making Doritos, Linden’s cookies, and Pop-Tarts available to our children every day. And despite the city Department of Education’s attempts to improve the “nutritional value” of these processed foods so that no single serving contains more than 200 calories or 10 percent saturated fat, make no mistake that it is still junk food filled with empty calories that our children don’t need.

So why, in the midst of a health crisis that many are calling an epidemic, hasn’t Mayor Bloomberg, who eliminated trans fats from city restaurants and has turned his sights to excessive salt consumption, removed the junk food from our schools? One possible explanation is the $28 million the city’s schools are projected to make over the next five years from the vending machines. The sad truth is that the Department of Education and the food companies providing the junk food are making a lot of money by making our children fat. But the report from Mission: Readiness has an answer for this as well: “Research shows that reducing high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and beverages … does not hurt a school’s bottom line. The sales of school lunches increase when junk food and sugary beverages are limited.”

That’s promising news, but whether the Department of Education would make up the loss revenue with increased sales of school lunches is irrelevant. Schools should not be making money at the expense of our children’s health. And yet the junk food continues to be sold out of greed, apathy, or some combination of both. If the distressing statistics regarding the state of our children’s health aren’t enough to persuade Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein to remove the junk food from our schools, maybe this quote from the Mission: Readiness report will: “The United States military stands ready to protect the American people, but if our nation does not help ensure that future generations grow up to be healthy and fit, that will become increasingly difficult. The health of our children and our national security are at risk. America must act decisively.” Let’s hope that now our elected officials will do just that.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.