Blog | December 1, 2020

School and Summer Meals Help Protect National Security

Childhood nutrition, or lack thereof, impacts our country in unexpected ways, including damaging our national security.

Brigadier General (Ret.) Jerry Engelman

As a retired Air Force general and proud member of Mission: Readiness, an organization of more than 750 retired admirals and generals that work to strengthen national security by ensuring kids stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble, I take childhood nutrition very seriously. I understand the importance of helping our children grow up healthy, free from malnutrition, and able to access fresh and nutritious foods. Childhood nutrition, or lack thereof, impacts our country in unexpected ways, including damaging our national security.

Without access to balanced, nutritious meals, children are more likely to be affected by malnutrition manifesting as obesity. The obesity epidemic is a growing problem that often disqualifies young people from joining the military. Currently, 71 percent of recruiting-age people are ineligible to join the military, partly due to medical disqualifiers like obesity. To resolve this problem and protect our national security, we must invest in programs that consistently provide our children with balanced and nutritious meals throughout the year.

North Dakotans have always faced the unique challenge of meeting the needs of children in rural and tribal areas across the state. In my years of service in the North Dakota National Guard, I have worked all across the state and seen these challenges first-hand. The more remote areas of the state are prone to food insecurity because they often have fewer options for grocery shopping and therefore, less access to affordable, nutritious foods. Food insecurity, defined by the USDA as a reduction in the quality, variety, or desirability of diet, or a disruption in eating patterns and reduced food intake due to a household lack of resources, financial or otherwise, necessary to obtain adequate food, is a widespread problem across North Dakota, and the entire nation. Food insecurity can lead to malnutrition, which often manifests as obesity.

School and summer meals are integral to combatting the growing rates of childhood obesity as children receive up to half of their daily calories at school. In order to ensure that children have uninterrupted access to the same healthy, balanced meals all year, kids must also be able to get those meals not only during the school year, but also during the summer, and during school closures. Today, the need to adapt and modernize healthy school and summer meals is more urgent than ever in the face of school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With schools and many meal centers closed, we must think creatively to prevent food insecurity and childhood malnutrition across North Dakota. One way to help mitigate this problem is through school and summer meal meal delivery programs.

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s Food Distribution on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) is a great example of a program that can be adapted to fit the needs of all school-age children. Should the FDPIR program be replicated in rural areas across the state to meet the needs of school-age children, it would increase their access to balanced and prepared meals which would concurrently improve access to healthy and nutritious meals during summer months.

The existing FDPIR program delivers meals across Indian reservations for 12 months out of the year. The food package per individual currently costs $52.00/month. A delivery model like this one could prove more cost-effective than the additional staffing, training, and sanitization required to reopen traditional school and summer meal distribution centers. Delivery and mobile food sites will also allow for social-distancing measures to keep both staff and children safe and healthy. Access to fresh and nutritious foods during school and summer months could increase healthy outcomes for kids in rural and tribal areas by partnering with existing food distribution programs like this one. Innovating the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction’s Food Distribution on Indian Reservations program to include school and summer meals, could place more youth on the path to a healthier future. It’s innovative efforts like these that can be adapted across our nation to help more kids consistently access fresh and nutritious food.

To put these programs into practice, Congress should make available the increased flexibility and additional funding necessary to support mobile, delivery, and other innovative school and summer meal service options. Lawmakers should allow and encourage school and summer meal innovations that best serve North Dakotans and our nation’s children as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and seek to reverse the trends of childhood obesity.