Written By: Brigitte W. McKee, EBV-SU, Class of 2011
One of the “benefits” of military life is access to base commissaries and exchanges. Commissaries sell discount groceries and exchange market household and electronic goods tax-free. Usually, there is an attached food court that serves the appetites of its target customers: military members, their families and veteran retirees.
So, the military community has convenient access to food and consumer goods at a discounted price. What’s the problem? Like so many other places in America—where there is convenience, there is fast food, and very few, if any, healthy choices. In the midst of an obesity epidemic, this should not be the case.
Policy makers agree. In 2011, a working group from the Pentagon convened to fight the childhood obesity epidemic. One of the urgent reasons behind the task force was the statistic that half of those who volunteer to serve in our Armed Forces come from a military family, according to Barbara Thompson, director of the Pentagon’s Office of Family Policy, Children and Youth and co-chair of the Department of Defense working group to combat childhood obesity. (See: American Forces Press Service article.) It is in the interest of the Department of Defense to promote healthful eating and fitness for military children. The working group cited challenges particular to military parents, such as deployments and frequent moves, as those which pose challenges to eating healthy.
Last fall Mission: Readiness, a non-partisan group of retired flag and general officers, made headlines with their report, “Too Fat to Fight,” which revealed that 75% of Americans ages 17-24 are ineligible to serve due to criminal records, failure to graduate high school or being physically unfit. According to the report, being unfit and overweight is the chief medical reason why young adults cannot enlist. To fight against this problem, they proposed updating school menus and vending machines with healthier meals and snacks. In other words, they advocated creating a culture of “healthy choice,” an environment that supports nutrition and fitness for our nation’s youth.
As a military spouse and parent, I couldn’t agree more. If I go online, I can find supportive information about eating and shopping healthfully. At Military OneSource, on online reference for the military community, there is information about Operation Live Well, a 20-year campaign to focus the military community (service members, Guard and Reserve, families, veterans and civilians) on improving or sustaining a better way of life. The campaign supports the goals of the National Prevention Strategy and holds to the ideals that the military community can model ideal health standards for the nation. However, when I visit my local commissary and exchange—I’ve frequented two of the Navy’s largest on both the East and West Coast recently—I find there is little support for “healthy choice.”
Let me explain. I’ve moved twice in the last two years, and am a breastfeeding mom with small children. This means I have lived several weeks in military hotels as we obtain housing. I have spent countless hours shopping at the commissary and exchange, getting our household furnished with requisite supplies. I have also frequented the base for doctor’s appointments, to meet military friends who live on base and to meet my spouse on occasion if he has a break from work. Many of these activities revolve around meals or snack time. If I lived on base, I would spend even more time at the commissary and exchange.
So, imagine my frustration when I step inside the Base Exchange to look for a healthy snack for my 2-year-old and myself and all I can find is pizza, fried foods, Starbucks and a lot of soda. Luckily, Starbucks sells Perrier seltzer water, organic milk and raw nuts. It’s more expensive than other options, and tough to turn down the donuts, but to me, it’s worth it. It is virtually impossible to find fresh fruit or vegetables for sale as a snack at the Base Exchange.
When I go to the commissary to grocery shop, most of the merchandise is yes, heavily discounted, but also heavily processed, sugared and salted. The meats are not organic, and the beverage aisle seems twice the size of what it is in comparable grocery stores. I take a deep breath and spend my time shopping the perimeter—where there are fresh fruits and vegetables (some are organic; ideally, more would be local), some organic dairy and a decent choice of whole grains.
The good news is that healthy choices can be found at the commissary, the bad news is that they are hard to find and typically not as discounted as processed foods. One of my favorite challenges is to see if I can find steel-cut oatmeal. I have found it once or twice, but I usually have to get it at a grocery store off-base.
Here is the reality that I hope those who run our military bases will hear: To make a healthy choice, the physical environment—not the cyber one—is what is going to make a difference to the military community.
Besides keeping a stock of steel-cut oats, here are some of my recommendations to create a “healthy choice” culture at military installations and bases:
- Imitate Whole Foods. Have a fresh salad bar, stock healthy take-out meals with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, have shopping guides and recipe cards for healthy merchandise available and in plain view for customers.
- Host a weekly Farmer’s Market. Sell fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms on base. Support local farms and suppliers as opposed to industrial food.
- Provide healthy lunch options in the exchange. So many of our troops go to the exchange on lunch break, this is really important.
- Increase water fountains or access to free bottled water. Make water an easy choice for those shopping on base. Often, when we are hungry, we are actually thirsty.
- Initiate Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) for base housing. Make it easy for those who live on base (singles, families, enlisted and officer) to find and eat whole foods. Build a community around eating healthfully and seasonally.
The obesity epidemic is real and requires creative solutions. Google has received a lot of press for the free food it serves its employees. James B. Stewart, of the New York Times, recently wrote about Google’s “perks” and how Google supports a “healthy choice” culture in their cafeterias by displaying water more prominently than sodas, and by putting healthy snacks in transparent jars and less nutritious snacks in opaque ones. Like the DOD, Google is also concerned with quality of life, energy and stamina of employees. However, they are tackling these same issues by applying research and using pragmatic updates to work and living spaces.
It’s no secret that when we eat better, we feel better, we perform better. We need to keep our military community strong and healthy. Quality of life for the military, future generations of recruits and a sustainable health care system for veterans and their families are depending on it.
Brigitte W. McKee is an organizational development consultant, a U.S. Navy veteran and a 2011 graduate of the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities at Syracuse University.