Recently, first lady Michelle Obama has highlighted childhood obesity in the United States. A group of retired military leaders, citing the potential effect on future soldiers, call the obesity crisis a national security threat.
Let’s not forget though about the children in developing countries and even here at home who struggle to get even one meal a day. While childhood obesity is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with, the first thrust needs to be on the children who lack food.
Global child hunger is a threat to our national security. Malnourished children are never a foundation for world peace and stability.
Look at Afghanistan, where there are 600,000 street children, according to the Aschiana Foundation. These children are not getting enough to eat. They are not in school getting an education. Instead, they have to forage and beg for their families. All children in Afghanistan should be able to take part in Food for Education programs. Insufficient funding prevents this from happening.
In Yemen, another country high on U.S. national security priorities, malnourishment and poverty afflict many children. Food for education programs and infant feeding all have faced cuts because of low funding for the World Food Programme (WFP).
In Iraq, WFP was forced to drastically reduce a school feeding program intended for 960,000 children because of lack of funds.This scene is repeated in many other countries since child feeding is given so little emphasis in our national security strategy. And this is a huge mistake.
There was a time after World War II when the alarm would be sounded if child feeding was found to be deficient in a given country. Faced with the problem of restoring war-devastated Europe and Asia, child feeding formed an important part of U.S. foreign policy.
If you had a time machine, you could parade a number of decorated generals before the Senate touting child feeding as a vital part of foreign policy. General Douglas MacArthur would talk about school feeding in Japan. General Mark Clark could discuss school meals in Austria and General Lucius Clay would praise school feeding’s role in the rehabilitation of Germany.
School feeding in Vienna, Austria after World War II (National Archives photo)
General George Marshall would remind everyone of a poster in Italy in 1948 contrasting chaos and famine with bread and order. School feeding was a part of the interim aid program for Italy that preceded the Marshall Plan reconstruction. General Eisenhower in 1948 also emphasized the importance of child feeding in the quest for peace.
Child feeding is no less important today. As the Senate considers massive new spending proposals on nuclear arms, it should reflect on its priorities in this post-Cold War world. They are missing the real struggle, one that will determine whether there is to be peace and stability. This is the struggle to end hunger and poverty. It starts with feeding children.
The U.S. can provide the leadership in an international effort to ensure there is universal school feeding. While school lunches must play a larger role in foreign policy abroad, there are also holes to plug in the U.S. school lunch program. A report from the Dept. of Agriculture showed that 16.7 million American children lived in food-insecure households during 2008. This figure is likely to be worse during the ongoing economic crisis.
School meals are a vital safety net for children, yet the current U.S. program does not reach everyone in need. Not all eligible students are taking part in the free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs.
A bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 5504, would go a long way toward increasing this participation. The bill would also expand after-school and summer meals for needy children. Hunger does not take a break and neither should food safety nets for children.
A report from the Food Research and Action Center was appropriately titled “Hunger Does not Take a Vacation.” The report said, “Only one in six of the low-income students who depended on the National School Lunch Program during the regular 2008-2009 school year had access to summer meals in 2009. The limited reach of the Summer Nutrition Programs meant that for the majority of those children, the end of the school year was the end of the healthy, filling meals they counted on, and meant as well a summer of struggling to avoid going hungry.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says there should be “support for creative solutions in feeding children nutritious snacks and meals after school, on weekends, and during the summer.” Examples of creative summer and after-school programs are printed here. There need to be more throughout the country.
Vilsack added, “The health of our nation – of our economy, our communities, and our national security – depends on the health of our children. We will not succeed if our children are not learning as they should because they are hungry, and cannot achieve their dreams because they are unhealthy.”
School meals for all children, at home and abroad. Making this a reality would be relatively inexpensive and would have long-term benefits in terms of health and productivity for generations to come. This is also not some near-impossible task where one throws one’s hands in the air and says it cannot be done. Obstacles can be overcome.
Even during the darkest hours of World War II, people in America and Sweden worked to get school meals to children in Nazi-occupied Norway. This heroic effort allowed at least some Norwegian children to receive some respite from the hunger and malnutrition that loomed over their country victimized by World War II.
It’s not so much a question of whether school meals can be provided to children. It’s more a question of whether there is the will and leadership to do so. That is where the United States has to demonstrate its great power at home and abroad by ensuring no child goes hungry.