A group of retired military officers is giving school lunches a new label: national security threat. They say school lunches have helped make young people so fat that fewer of them can meet the military’s physical fitness standards, and recruitment is in jeopardy.
A report released Tuesday said more than 9 million young adults, or 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24, are too overweight to join the military. Now, the officers are advocating for passage of a wide-ranging nutrition bill that aims to make the nation’s school lunches healthier.
The group, Mission: Readiness, appeared on Capitol Hill on Tuesday with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The group acknowledges other things keep young adults out of the armed services, such as criminal records or lack of a high school diploma. But weight problems that have worsened over the past 15 years are now the top medical reason recruits are rejected.
Although all branches of the military now meet or exceed recruitment goals, retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr. said the obesity trend could affect that. He said national security in 2030 is “absolutely dependent” on reversing child obesity rates.
According to the report, the government spends tens of millions of dollars every year to train replacements for service members discharged because of weight problems.
During World War II, military leaders had the opposite problem, reporting that many recruits were rejected because of stunted growth and inadequate nutrition. After the war, military leaders pushed Congress to establish the national school lunch program so children would grow up healthier. The program was established in 1946, “as a measure of national security,” according to the original bill language.
Today, the group is urging Congress to eliminate junk food and high-calorie beverages from schools, put more money into the school lunch program and develop new strategies to help children develop healthier habits.
The school lunch bill, currently awaiting a Senate vote, would establish healthier options for all foods in schools. It would spend $4.5 billion more over 10 years for nutrition programs.
The Army works with high schoolers and interested recruits to lose weight before they are eligible for service, said U.S. Army Recruiting Command’s Mark Howell, who had to lose 10 pounds before he joined the military.