Op-ed: Service Members Deserve the Freedom to Choose Plant-Based Options

I wanted to join the military when I was a college student in the 1990s, but I didn’t know how I could make my plant-based lifestyle fit with military provisions. After 9/11 though, I was so moved to serve my country that I decided to sign up then and figure it out later. Being a paratrooper and combat medic in Afghanistan was the honor of my lifetime, but getting by on the limited food options was a daily struggle.

If this kept me from joining the military for years, it must have kept other plant-based potential recruits out entirely—and still does.

Fortunately, a solution exists. The Food Service Guidelines for Federal Facilities—simple, inclusive food recommendations from a 2011 U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) workgroup—are an untapped game changer.

Today, I am calling on the Department of Defense to swiftly implement the guidelines and ensure permanent inclusion of nutritious and consistently available plant-based options for all U.S. military personnel. 

I wish current service members couldn’t relate to my stories about corn flakes and peanut butter for dinner, but plant-based offerings across the military remain inadequate. I’m shocked that two decades after I enlisted, we’re still coming up short on food options for those who defend our nation. 

Gen Z and millennials are in their prime service years and most inclined to eat plant-based. Our UK and Israeli allies have added plant-based options to their militaries, and active-duty U.S. service members want progress too—90% of those surveyed believe the military should adopt the guidelines now. 

When I was in Afghanistan, I resorted to posting online to see if strangers would send me plant-based food. Thankfully, many did, but service members shouldn’t have to outsource their food needs. The HHS has determined that its plant-based food recommendations are “widely achievable within food service” and that implementation at this level is expected.” These simple guidelines—“offer protein foods from plants” three times a week and grains, fruits, and vegetables daily—would support health for service members of all diets.

There’s no shortage of tasty plant-based foods for the military—and everyone else—to enjoy. Brother chefs Chad and Derek Sarno, co-founders of Wicked Kitchen, speak from experience: “People think plant-based eating means compromising,” says Derek, “when in reality, you’re opening your meals up to literally an entire world of delicious foods, flavors, and combinations.” Chad agrees that “nobody should miss out on what’s happening in plant-based food right now.”

When I started eating plant-based in 1992 for Lent, it was supposed to be temporary. But to my surprise, I loved how I felt. Since then, I’ve been a collegiate wrestler, marathon-runner, and martial artist. Believe me when I tell you how healthy a plant-based diet can be—as long as you’re getting the right foods.

“It’s simple,” says Julieanna Hever, registered dietitian and author. “The more health-promoting foods you consume and the fewer health-damaging foods you consume, the more you fortify your health. A whole-food, plant-based diet helps your body stave off chronic disease, maintain ideal weight, and enhance exercise performance.”

By 2030, military health care could cost almost $100 billion annually, with much of that treating chronic illness that plant-based foods help protect against—like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ health website says it best: “Vegetables should be the basis of your diet.” 

I urge the Department of Defense to act quickly in mandating the guidelines at all military facilities because service members’ patriotism should not be tested by a mix-and-match game of inadequate foods. For a stronger U.S. military, the Food Service Guidelines for Federal Facilities must be implemented immediately. 

Bill Muir—aka “Sgt. Vegan”—is a former paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and current registered nurse at West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Mercy For Animals is a leading international nonprofit working to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system. Active in Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, and the United States, the organization has conducted more than 100 investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, influenced more than 500 corporate policies, and helped pass historic legislation to ban cages for farmed animals. Join us at MercyForAnimals.org.