I came across two bits of interest on the Web yesterday that tied together our obesity epidemic with national security.
The first was this bit of grotesque food reporting that highlighted five of the most ridiculous platters being served in our nation’s restaurants. For those of you without the courage to hit the link – and I cannot blame you; I think just going to this article left me with gravy on my fingers – it spotlights the kind of extreme food being served today that a generation ago would have been thought impossible. Heck, just 10 years ago, meals like the IHOP New York Cheesecake Pancakes, Friendly’s Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt and Applebee’s Provolone-Stuffed Meatballs with Fettuccine—all of which clock in at upwards to 1,500 calories apiece—would have been written off as either a joke or a bizarre form of torture, the kind of thing you don’t eat because it’s enjoyable, but because you might win something if you can get it all down.
After reading that, the second item I encountered came as little surprise. According to the New York Times, because the U.S. Army is receiving record numbers of unfit recruits, they are modifying their basic training to accommodate a much lower level of personal fitness among new soldiers that what was experienced in years past. Sit-ups are virtually a thing of the past, as are the traditional five-mile runs. Now, to be honest, part of these changes reflect changing fitness requirements of our soldiers. In the urban battlefields of today and tomorrow, our troops generally don’t need to run miles at a time, but they do need to be able to sprint short distances all day long. Likewise, sit-ups are fine, but total core strengthening is even better. That said, the latest Times article follows other reporting about the general unfitness of our recruits, who are members of what is becoming known as the “Pepsi generation,” millennials raised on a steady diet of no exercise, lots of sugary soda, and nonstop sedentary entertainment.
This reminds me of an article I caught about 10 years ago (from the Wall Street Journel, I think) that noted how Army training in general was getting easier, and how some recruits likened it to summer camp. I suppose that’s fine during a decade of relative peace. But fighting and endless war against terrorism requires fit soldiers and right now, the obesity of young Americans has reached such a high level that it is now being considered a security threat. Nearly 25% of potential recruits are turned away for being overweight at a time when recruiting needs are acute.
If there is one group that is taking the threat seriously, it is Mission Readiness, a group of senior retired U.S. military leaders that is working to raise awareness of the impact that American obesity is having on the nation’s ability to defend itself. It is focusing on childhood obesity, which has tripled in frequency over the last decade. Between 1995 and 2008, according to the Mission Readiness report entitled “Too Fat to Fight,” some 140,000 people signed up for military service, but were turned away because they were too fat. Being overweight is the number one reason for recruit rejection. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of potential recruits who failed their annual physical exams due to excess weight rose by 70 percent. This is not just reflective of those who wish to serve in the military, but American society itself.
The health insurance industry already knows this, but some facts bear repeating. Like if obesity rates are not reigned in, according to the American Public Health Association, it will add some $344 billion to U.S. health care costs by 2018 and account for some 21% of all health care spending. Just imagine what $344 billion less in claims would do to claims administration costs and pricing.
Mission Readiness is focusing on changing childhood nutrition as a long-tail way of defeating obesity. (On a more grim note, one might suspect it is because these senior generals have given up on the current generation’s ability to slim itself. What is a crippling health insurance problem looks likely to become a life insurance problem.) One way to do this, Mission Readiness suggests, is to improve the food in schools. Get rid of vending machines, and improve the lunches being served, and kids might not become so overweight so quickly.
It is a sound idea, but here is an even better one: let’s end federal school lunch and breakfast subsidies altogether.
Now I know that sounds like a crazy, even un-American idea. After all, isn’t getting a school lunch a rite of childhood? Isn’t it up to our schools to provide our kids with a good breakfast to tackle a day of lessons? It is, but when you face the facts of school food programs, it becomes clear that they are not serving the function for which they are intended. And the reason why I’m bringing it up here is because what’s going on in our schools has a clear and present impact on the health insurance results of tomorrow.
For starters, the federal lunch program was instituted to address the fact that a lot of WWII recruits had to be turned away because they were undernourished. (Jimmy Stewart is a notable example, though he “fattened up” and managed to serve with distinction.) The idea was to make sure American kids have enough meat on their bones to fight. And for a generation that lived through the lean years of the Great Depression, that made sense. We don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world of constant access to food and super-saturation of high-fructose corn syrup in almost every manufactured foodstuff there is. The last thing we need is to make sure kids are getting enough calories. All evidence shows they already get too many of them.
More importantly, according to the Department of Agriculture the average federal food subsidy given to schools was about $2.50 per meal, with the intent that $2.50 should cover the entire cost of the meal. However, some 75% of the schools that get $2.50 per meal don’t even spend it all, pocketing the rest to offset other operational costs. Even more distressing is that the cost of the meal breaks down to 45% cost of food, 45% cost of labor, and 10% other costs. The means the actual cost of the food in most school meals is about $1.13. If you’ve done any studying on the nutritional value of food relative to its cost (go check out Freakonomics, if you haven’t), you’ll know that not only does $1.13 not buy a lot of food, the food it buys is the worst possible kind of stuff you can feed to a growing child. On the front line against obesity, our schools have been infiltrated by the enemy, and you, dear health insurer, are the ones paying for it.
The National School Lunch Program cost some $6.1 billion in 2000, and all it did was help triple our childhood rate of obesity, to the point where even our military can’t whip our own kids into shape. What disaster does this spell 20 years down the road, when these same people will be expected to contribute to a society crushed by the weight of its own health care costs? I don’t even want to know. But I do know this: $6.1 billion could do an awful lot to raise obesity awareness. It could buy a lot of organic apples and bananas. It would buy a lot of playground equipment. It might even help prevent a war.
Think about it.