Removing Junk Food from Schools Could Increase Pool of Potential Military Recruits

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — With 1 in 4 young adults too overweight to join the military, a group of retired senior military leaders offers this advice: Remove junk food from the schools.

“The problem of junk food sold in schools is not just a national health issue. It is a national security issue,” the retired top brass write in a recent report.

The report, “Still Too Fat To Fight,” points out that being overweight or obese is the No. 1 medical reason why young adults cannot enlist in the military. The report, a follow-up to the group’s earlier report, “Too Fat to Fight,” was published by Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit national security organization of senior retired military leaders.

Major General John W. “Bill” Libby, US Army (Ret.) of the Mission:Readiness organization reads with children at a Pre-K program in Bangor, ME. The group seeks “smart investments” in the nation’s children.

“As retired admirals and generals, we know that America is not powerless in the face of this insidious epidemic,” they write. “We do not have to keep surrendering ever more of our young people to obesity. We do not need to keep jeopardizing our national security because three-quarters of our young people cannot serve in the military, a quarter of them because they are overweight.”

Military Tackles Obesity

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, with the percentage of children ages 6 to 11 years in the U.S. who are obese increasing from 7% in 1980 to nearly 20% in 2008 and the percentage of adolescents ages 12 to19 years who are obese increasing from 5% to 18% over the same period.

The report authors note that it is harder for the military to recruit and retain enough qualified individuals than in the past, “because [the U.S.] has failed to improve fitness and reduce obesity among [its] youth.” Moreover, many young people are not only too overweight to join the military, but poor nutrition and a lack of exercise also have an impact on those who are accepted for basic training.

“While recruits have, on average, more muscle mass than recruits in past decades, they also have more body fat, thus placing them at risk of becoming overweight,” the report states. “There are also physically unfit (though not overweight) recruits who can and do enter, since the military does not test the physical fitness of recruits until they arrive at boot camp. In one study, 14% of new Army male recruits said they had not exercised or done any sports in a typical week prior to joining. Of recruits who could not do 11 push-ups upon entry, 45% did not complete boot camp. We also know from military research that less-fit recruits are more prone to leg and ankle injuries.”

The need to address weight issues among troops, dependents and retirees has not been lost on DoD. The report details how the agency is spending about $1 billion per year for medical care associated with weight-related health problems.

Lawrenceville, Ga., native Lance Cpl. Branden Morgan, an automatic rifleman with Headquarters Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, dead-lifts a barbell at the base gym. Morgan was born in Abilene, Texas, and lived most of his life in Las Vegas before moving to Georgia in high school.

To address nutrition and obesity, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health  Affairs Jonathan Woodson, MD, announced in February a new obesity and nutrition awareness campaign from the Military Health System. The campaign improves nutrition standards across the services for the first time in 20 years, bringing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lower-fat entree choices to the 1,100 servicemember dining facilities. The campaign also seeks to provide healthier foods in DoD schools and other places where food can be purchased on bases, including vending machines and snack bars.

Still, DoD cannot tackle the problem alone, and that is where schools can make a difference, the retired military leaders insist. When New York, for example, stopped selling junk food in its schools and made other improvements in nutrition and physical activity, the rates of obesity among its kindergarten through eighth-grade children dropped by 5.5% districtwide in only four years, according to the report.

“While limiting the sale of junk food is not a solution by itself for the childhood-obesity epidemic, it is part of the solution,” the report states. “When schools sell candy and sugary drinks in cafeterias and vending machines, it works against national efforts to serve healthier school meals and parents’ efforts to help their children develop healthier lifelong eating habits.”

Total calories consumed in a year from junk food sold at schools is almost 400 billion calories, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The retired military leaders say they support legislation signed into law in December 2010 requiring USDA to update nutrition standards for all school foods and beverages, including food sold outside of school meal programs, in vending machines, in school stores and as à la carte items in the cafeteria.

The report notes that Mission: Readiness “applauds” the USDA for its efforts to update nutrition standards for meals served in schools and “looks forward to the finalized standards for competitive foods and beverages. We urge Congress to support the regulatory process and allow the USDA to finalize updated standards with input from nutrition experts and other knowledgeable experts on school nutrition policies.”

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