Too Fat to Fight?

By Marc Ambinder

So even I wasn't prepared to go this far. When I saw the headline: "Report Links School Lunches to National Security," I assumed that some group had found that Al Qaeda or a domestic terrorist group could infiltrate food companies and sneak poison into fish sticks.

But no, it's actually a group of ex-generals (!) who believe that bad food served to kids is making them all soft and gooey. They worry that kids will become so obese at such a rapid rate that the military will have to lower its entrance standards and that few will be able to complete the physical challenges posed by basic training.


If this seems a bit silly, lawmakers took it seriously. And so did the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, who showed up at the group's press conference. It's true that the Army has relaxed its physical standards already, and that it has ramped up efforts to work with recruits to help them lose weight before basic training begins, according to the AP. 

The point here is that it is hard to find a constituency opposed to major changes in the programs that govern food fed to kids in school. Those who are persuaded by national security arguments can now adopt the "too fat to fight" mantra if they so choose. On a higher level, these generals are helping anti-obesity activists deal with the most fervid objection to government intervention: that the negative externalities of the obesity epidemic aren't significant enough to warrant more regulation. In layman's terms, the combined effects of obesity are harmful to people who aren't obese, and so there's a compelling public interest to act collectively.

The other major objection is that parents, not government, ought to supervise their kids' eating and tend to their lifestyle. That argument may have been valid 30 years ago, when the nuclear family was more or less intact, when one parent didn't work or when teenage pregnancy rates were much lower. Parents in vulnerable communities don't know how to prevent their kids from becoming obese, and no one helps them, while still expecting them to prevent their kids from becoming obese. That's just dumb.

Still, acting collectively doesn't necessarily mean MORE government. One of the reasons why the FDA is considering a broad retrofit of salt regulations is that they want the food industry to adopt and adhere to standards on their own. These standards would have to actually reduce salt consumption, or else the FDA would sweep back around and continue its rulemaking process. (Actually, all that happened yesterday was that an Institute of Medicine panel commissioned by the FDA to study the question of regulation handed in its final work product.)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/04/too-fat-to-fight/39303/