One in four young American adults between the ages of 17 and 24 is too overweight to join the military. According to the 300 retired generals and admirals who are behind the new report “Still Too Fat to Fight” released by Mission: Readiness, the epidemic of excess fat and obesity among children is not just a national health issue. It is a national security issue. And one borne, ironically, out of that nation’s own misguided programs and policies on food and the unhealthy eating environment they have engendered.
Being overweight or obese is the number one medical reason why young adults cannot enlist. “No other major country’s military forces face the challenges of weight gain confronting America’s armed forces,” warns Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for investments in America’s youth for a stronger military. “Our male rates of being overweight or obese” — at 73 percent — “are higher than those of any other major country.”
The military has had a hard time overall of recruiting and retaining qualified men and women for service. Between being overweight or obese, lacking a high school diploma and having a criminal record, roughly three-quarters of young Americans, or 26 million of them, are ineligible to join.
Many who are recruited have to go through special training to address weight and fitness issues before they can even begin regular basic training. The military also spends more than $1 billion every year on treating “weight-related diseases,” such as diabetes and heart disease, through its health care system, which serves active duty personnel, dependents and veterans. It is as burdened by the epidemic as is the rest of the country.
Get Junk Food Out of Schools
Part of the solution, the report maintains, is to limit the sale of junk food, including chips, cakes, cookies and candy, in schools. Every year, 400 billion calories in junk food are sold in schools to kids. On any given day, 40 percent of students in elementary through high school consume an average of 130 calories from junk food they bought at school, which is around 5 to 10 percent of the recommended daily calorie intake for kids and teens. Clearly, these calories — from junk food made with government-subsidized corn, soy and wheat — add up.
“When schools sell candy and sugary drinks in cafeterias and vending machines,” says the report, “it works against national efforts to serve healthier school meals and parents’ efforts to help their children develop healthier lifelong habits.” Why are we deliberately and routinely exposing our kids to junk food in a space dedicated to educating them?
The report from Mission: Readiness cites the example of New York City, which reduced the rates of obesity among its K-8 children by 5.5 percent in just four years. In addition to limiting the sale of junk food in schools, the city encouraged physical activity among students and developed education programs for both kids and their parents. The military, for its part, has made “the most sweeping changes of military food services in 20 years,” bringing a range of healthy foods to service members and their families wherever they eat on base, including vending machines and snack bars.
As of this fall, new nutritional standards for school meals are being implemented across the country as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The USDA, however, has yet to release new standards for competitive foods — i.e., foods sold in schools outside of the National School Lunch program as a la carte items, in vending machines or at school stores.
It’s time for government to move forward, and quickly. “We urge Congress to put the health of our children ahead of special interest groups and adopt the USDA’s updated competitive foods standards,” says Air Force lieutenant general Norman Seip, a spokesman for Mission: Readiness, in USA Today.
According to a USDA spokesman, “Secretary Tom Vilsack has asked for additional time to review the proposed standards for competitive foods to ensure that we do what is right for kids in a way that is workable to the school districts that will be charged with implementation.”
Here’s hoping that doing what’s right for our kids overrides every other consideration and that the new standards for competitive foods will in fact rid our schools of junk. Here’s hoping, in other words, the government will surprise us.
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