US Government. Childhood Obesity. A Threat To Our National Security. Government, Schools, Families, And Kids Themselves Are Called To Action.

US Flags - National Security09-25-2012 C-Span broadcast a conference from the National Press Club held by Mission: Readiness.   Amy Taggart, its National Director, explained that Mission: Readiness is a nonprofit organization of over 300 retired generals and admirals who are greatly concerned that childhood obesity poses a real threat to our long term national security. Four of these distinguished retired military leaders and an officer from the Department of Defense speak about why childhood obesity and the unhealthy options in school cafeterias has an impact on national security. They tell of the organization’s efforts to influence change on the government, school and community levels and the progress already being made.

Childhood Obesity-The Facts – Admiral James Loy, US Coast Guard retired, Former Commandant of the US Coast Guard and Former Deputy of the US Homeland Security.
“Two years ago the initial report entitled “Too Fat to Fight” prompted attention.  The report added pressure to the efforts to set nutritional standards in our school menus across the country. Those efforts are in practice today.  Today’s report recognizes that kids have other things to eat during the school day and challenges the government authorities that are in the process of affecting standards to set equally strong standards for what kids can find in vending machines, what kids can find in stores and what kids can find in à la cart cafeteria lines.  The bottom line is that there is still too much junk food available to kids in school.  And we as parents and citizens let alone military colleagues who have the national security of our country in interest, must be doing something about it.  My colleagues will offer their concerns and comment on our report. Let me offer a couple of simple facts to get us started.

  • Fact Number One – 400,000,000,000 (billion) calories of junk food are sold in our schools every year.
  • Fact Number Two – If that was all candy bars laid end to end, it would circle the globe about six times.
  • Fact Number Three – 1 in 4 of our children is unable to serve in the military services simply because they are too overweight.  That’s 25%.  Asthma may be the next disqualifier which is only at 4%.
  • Fact Number Four – It is actually very easy to link this obesity epidemic to its impact on the national security of our country.  We are trying to lead and manage an all volunteer force and 25% of the candidate pool from which we draw those people is simply ineligible to serve.
  • Fact Number Five – To the people on this stage who have commanded troops in combat and know the physical rigors of military service, this is simply an unacceptable trend and it has to be reversed.  None of us want the SEAL assigned to that recent mission in Pakistan to come up short on his mission because he’s out of breath.  None of us want the rescue swimmer jumping out of that perfectly good Coast Guard helicopter into a 45 foot sea to be anything but totally capable both mentally and physically to discharge the duties that they have and to save the lives of that fishing crew before their boat sinks.

That’s why we are here today.  My colleagues will connect some of the dots for you…”

Shrinking Pool of Recruits – Brigadier General Belinda Pinckney, US Army retired
“We tend to think about the military in terms of jets, ships, and technology, but the military’s most important asset is a service member be it a soldier, sailor, marine, Air Force, Coast Guard.  So consider this shocking reality; according to the Department of Defense an estimated 75% of young people attempting to come into the military are unable to join for three key reasons.

  1. Poor education. The high school dropout rate is still very prevalent.
  2. Serious criminal record.
  3. They are physically unfit.

I got to experience that firsthand in one of my assignments at a training post where I was the senior person responsible for ensuring that those new recruits coming in could actually pass a PT test, could meet the height and weight standards.  So we invest a lot of money and time and resources on these individuals and unfortunately about 1200 of these recruits do not stay in the military for an extended period of time…we have invested approximately $50,000 per recruit.  I am a finance person with a controller background. The return on that investment is not very good…  A shrinking pool of eligible recruits is a threat to national security and we are troubled by the impact that can have on the future military preparedness and the success of upcoming generations.

This is not a new issue.  We have to do something about it because it actually does threaten our capabilities of remaining an all volunteer force.  It’s a national security issue.  We all know that obesity rates among children have increased dramatically in recent decades and this has affected who can join the military.  Again one in four young Americans are just too overweight to enlist.  9 million young adults between the ages of 17 to 24.  Being overweight or obese is the number one medical reason why young adults cannot join the military.  As these alarming figures show childhood obesity is more than just a health problem, it’s more than just an economic issue, it is in fact a national security issue.  The Department of Defense has played an important role, not only in addressing the obesity issue within the military, but also by acknowledging that weight issues can play a role in reducing the pool of young adults who qualify for military service.”

New Programs and Developments – Mr. Charles Milam, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defense, For Military Community And Family Policy, US Department of Defense (DOD)
“As part of the National Prevention Strategy, the DOD (Department of Defense) has stood up a health promotion working group and have been tackling this issue pretty aggressively in the past year and a half, to fight obesity for service members and their families.  We believe that children can influence their parents and parents influence their children so we are taking this from a holistic standpoint.  I am proud to announce that we have been moving forward with some of our progress in our schools and in our child development centers.

  • We have partnered with the USDA in adopting the standards that they have.
  • In the DoDEA schools (Department of Defense Education Activity), we have been revamping the menus in our school programs…We have about 2 million military children in the active guard and reserve component and of that only about 5% are represented.  So the work than Mission: Readiness is doing will certainly impact the other 95% in those communities.
  • We have developed extensive databases for leading practices for new programs such as community and school gardens.
  • Our DoDEA schools are in the process of updating their menus to provide and promote tastier and healthier food.
  • We’re also working with some leaders in our cafeteria makeovers and our dining facilities, Dr. Brian Wansink from Cornell University who uses the Stealth-Health concept.
  • From a nutrition standpoint we have developed the m-Neat nutrition assessment tool (Military Nutrition Environment Assessment Tool) to comprehensively evaluate the eating environments on our bases.
  • We have developed our Go for Green program in our dining facilities.  Instead of the individually labeling of food we started to color code the foods.  Green-eat frequently, yellow-less frequently, and red-try to stay away from.
  • The Army has developed an initiative called the Soldier Fueling Initiative.  For those who need more calories, more nutrition.  Instead of eating more of the bad calories, we’re promoting more of the healthier options out there.
  • The Navy has the Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling Program (NOFFS) which provides tailored fitness and nutrition programs for their submarines, ships, and onshore operations.
  • We’re working with our exchanges in the fast food operations on the installations to bring in more healthy options. Youth Food just opened up in Aberdeen Proving Ground.
  • We are also working with our commissaries.  They have an aggressive campaign as well, to go out and pushed some of these standards that we are looking at.

Though we have been a leader in health and wellness and fitness we realize that we cannot do this alone. 75% of our service members and families live off installations. Our focus is to work together with our community partners and certainly Mission: Readiness to continue to promote these efforts.

The Initiative – Lt. General Norman Seip, US Air Force Retired
“…Two years ago we released a report called “Too Fat to Fight.” Where we indicated that 1 in 4 of our 17 to 24-year olds were ineligible to join the military because of being overweight.  The report also pointed out that a lot of the poor nutrition was found in our schools. Many of our children consume 40 to 50% of their calories in school every day and so that’s an area that we can focus on.

After we launched the report back in 2010, the vast majority of the members of Mission: Readiness went on record and we basically urged Congress and the Administration to go after nutritional standards with regards to the meals served in school.  And our leaders in Washington responded in a very positive way, a very bipartisan way and they passed the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which was very impressive.  It falls all the way back to 1946 when we started our first Federal Lunch Program when we  identified that 40% of the young men that were rejected from service were rejected for being undernourished.  Today we face a different problem.  Not being undernourished but nourished with the wrong type of calories, empty calories we call them.  The legislature is very detailed with lots of things directed at the Department of Agriculture to do, but Two of the Key Points Are: 

  • One –  To improve nutrition of the lunches that we serve in school. And he is pleased to announce that the Department of Agriculture is making great progress and the kids are eating healthier each and every day.
  • Two – Take decades old standards and tackle what we call competitive foods.  Those are foods sold in vending machines, the à la cart lines, and sold in our school stores.  400 billion calories equals the weight of the USS Midway, 90 million pounds. These new standards coming out weren’t done in a smoke filled room. They were not done under a sheet with a flashlight.  They were done with all the best and the brightest from the medical community, from our schools.  The Department of Agriculture received over around 130,000 inputs regarding our nutrition standards.  While all of the inputs are not in the legislature, a vast majority of them are.  The Department of Agriculture is about ready to update and implement these new standards in our vending machines and the à la cart lines.

Why is it so important to a bunch of retired military leaders?  As I said before many of our children get 40% to 50% of their calories at school everyday. And nutritional experts including the Institute of Medicine said that schools should be a focus. They are not the solution, not the silver bullet to this obesity problem but should certainly be our focus in dealing with child obesity reduction efforts.

We at Mission: Readiness believe that schools can play a critical role in reversing childhood obesity and ultimately strengthening our national security.

But this is a team effort not a spectator sport.  This is Full Contact.  It’s not just the school’s responsibility, not just in the mom and dad’s responsibility.  Everyone has a chance to play in this.  Whether it be the various levels of government, whether it be the medical community, our schools, our parents, our kids who are actually obese or overweight.  And as well and in particular the Beverage and Food Industry. We all need to play. At the end of the day, the next generation of children growing up deserve nothing less. And we as the adults in this room owe them nothing less as far as our efforts and commitment to this.”

Continued Efforts – General Richard Myers, US Air Force Retired, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
“400,000,000,000 (billion) calories is a shocking figure but it is based on really good research.  The research shows that on any given day almost 40% of children from elementary through high school, 16 million children overall, consumed one or more high calorie low nutrient food obtained at school but not part of the regular school lunch program.  The students gained over 130 calories per day from these junk foods which then equal the 400 billion calories per year.  Why is this so important?

There is now strong evidence that by replacing these junk foods, these empty calories, with healthier food choices can be a part of the solution to this childhood obesity epidemic.

When New York City, the country’s largest school district,  stop selling junk food in the school and made other improvements in nutrition, physical activity, child and parent education, both in the schools and citywide, the rates of obesity in children K through eighth grade dropped 5.5% district wide in just four years.  So you can make a difference with these programs.

Other places such as Philadelphia and Mississippi are also beginning to see meaningful progress in reducing childhood weight problems.  Stopping the routine of selling of junk food in school reinforces the message to children that they need to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits that hopefully will last a lifetime.

We cannot succeed in teaching our children to eat healthier foods while selling 400 billion of empty calories of junk food in our schools every year.

Mission: Readiness strongly supports the USDA’s effort to reduce junk food at school by updating decades old standards for foods sold at school vending machines and cafeteria snack lines.  That is why more than 200 retired generals and admirals signed a letter to Congress in support of the process through which the USDA seeks to update these standards.

Removing junk food from schools should be part of a comprehensive action involving parents, schools and communities to help children make healthy food choices.  As you have heard, obesity in our young men and women has a dramatic impact on our recruiting.  The armed services simply must have an adequate pool of recruits so that we can meet our 21st-century staffing needs.  The bottom line is that getting junk food were schools is critically important to making sure America’s child obesity crisis does not become a more serious national security crisis. Thank you”

Related Sites:

Mission: Readiness
Stealth-Health concept
m-NEAT-Military Nutrition Environment Assessment Tool
Soldier Fueling Initiative
Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling Program (NOFFS)


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