The military’s war on junk food has commenced. A recent report released by Mission Readiness, a nonprofit group of more than 130 high-ranking, retired military leaders, argues that childhood obesity is a threat to national security. The study finds that an alarming 27 percent of all young Americans (ages 17–24) are simply too fat for military service. Between 1995 and 2008, 140,000 potential recruits failed their entrance physicals because they were overweight.
You’ve got to get them while they’re young, argues the report. 80 percent of children who are overweight at ages 10–15 will be obese by age 25. The report calls on Congress to reduce the amount of sugary, high-calorie, low-nutrition food currently served in schools and to encourage schools to teach children healthier eating habits. These changes can make a difference. Over two years, a Philadelphia program cut in half the percentage of overweight fourth, fifth, and sixth graders—from 15 percent to 7.5 percent—by serving healthier food, training teachers to educate students about nutrition and exercise, and rewarding children with raffle tickets for making healthy choices (www.thefoodtrust.org/php/programs/comp.school.nutrition.php).
The next steps, says the report, are simple: boot out the vending machines and serve kids healthier meals. It urges Congress to impose nationwide standards—provided by the Institute of Medicine—on the food served or sold in schools and to increase the funding for school lunch programs. The latter will help schools cover the costs of healthier meals while also providing free or reduced-cost meals to lower-income students.
This is not the first time the military has weighed in on America’s health. After finding that 40 percent of rejected recruits during World War II were suffering from malnutrition, the military was instrumental in the passage of the National School Lunch Program in 1946.
Over the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates have tripled. (It has been suggested that today’s children might be the first generation of Americans to live shorter lives than their parents.) Now is the time, says the report, to “act decisively.”