The Military’s Nutrition Conundrum

Our Armed Forces are going to have a difficult time improving the diet habits of Americans in uniform

By Paul King, Editorial Director

There was an interesting story recently in the North County Times, a daily newspaper serving North San Diego. Entitled, “Food Choices Explode At Camp Pendleton,” the article talked about all of the food outlets available at this U.S. Marine Corps base. The article caught my eye because we’re always on the lookout for articles about military foodservice, and because I had just read last month about First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to expand her Let’s Move campaign to military bases. I wanted to see how the efforts at Camp Pendleton mesh with Mrs. Obama’s nutrition push. The short answer is, they don’t.

According to the article in the Times, there are more than two dozen retail restaurants on the base, many of them fast food establishments such as McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and Sonic. These units are, of course, exempt from the Pentagon’s recent initiative, led by the first lady, to improve the nutritional value of meals served in military dining halls.

The article went on to quote several base personnel about how much they crave fast food and little they enjoy the food in the dining halls.

“I only go to the chow hall when I’m low on money,” said one Marine. “I’m just not a chow hall fan,” said another.

To be fair to the foodservice personnel at Camp Pendleton, a reporter can choose which comments and quotes he or she includes in a story, so we don’t know whether positive comments about the base’s own foodservice program were made—or even solicited, for that matter. But there is no denying this fact: the Department of Defenses estimates that it spends more than $1 billion a year on medical costs related to the weight-related problems of military personnel.

This is going to be a tough nut for the military to crack. Military bases are really a hybrid: part college campus, part corporate office. A college campus does have the luxury of controlling what foodservice comes onto campus, and students have the ability to go off campus when they crave something that isn’t offered within the university boundaries.

Many soldiers, sailors and airmen, while of college age, are actually holding down a job, and they seldom have the luxury of going off base for a meal when they are on duty. So, the base brings often the food to them, so to speak.

“We have 50,000 to 60,000 people here a day,” a representative of the Marine Corps’ Community Services office was quoted as saying in the Times. “They need food choices.”

Let’s Move is gaining a foothold in school districts, where federal, state and local governments can work together to mandate the type of food made available to elementary and secondary school students. The government’s power over the dining choices of its own military personnel, however, is much more tenuous.

I’m not suggesting the government ban unhealthy food from military bases. But I do believe Michelle Obama is going to have a much harder time improving the nutritional health of our men and women in uniform.