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Four years ago, hundreds of retired admirals and generals formed a united front on the war against childhood obesity in support of the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. As a result of that legislation, more than 90 percent of the nation’s school districts are successfully implementing nutrition standards that ensure students are offered appealing, nourishing school lunches.
Unfortunately, we are now at a critical crossroads. Depending on what happens in the next few months, this effort will either stay on track for the good of students nationwide, or be derailed to satisfy special interests.
That’s terrible news for everyone who expects schools to play a responsible role in supporting children’s health — and it could be a tremendous blow to the strength of our armed services.
I say this as a retired U.S. Army general and cardiac/thoracic surgeon who is well-aware of the impact of overeating and bad choices on the lives of young men and women aspiring to the honor of military service. Many are surprised and disheartened that they are among the 75 percent of young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 who cannot qualify, primarily because they are either overweight, academically unprepared or have a criminal record. Being overweight or obese is the number one medical reason why young adults cannot enlist.
Obesity is not just a problem for potential recruits. In the past, the military has discharged more than 1,200 first-term enlistees in a single year due to weight problems. The military then had to recruit and train their replacements at a cost of $75,000 per person — which totaled roughly $90 million that year.
The problems do not end there. In addition to replacing those who have been discharged due to weight, the Department of Defense has spent an estimated $1.1 billion in a single year on obesity-related medical expenses for active-duty personnel, reservists, retirees and their dependents through TRICARE, the military’s health care program. We also know from military research that less-fit recruits are more prone to musculoskeletal problems such as leg and ankle injuries — an inconvenience in most civilian jobs, but potentially life-threatening in armed conflict.
The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act has been a crucial part of our battle plan for addressing this. As a first step, it raised the standards for the school lunch program, boosting the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reducing sugar, fat and salt.
As a second step, it is cutting back the availability of candy, chips, sodas and other unhealthy items in vending machines and à la carte lines. This is especially important because children consume hundreds of billions of calories at school every year — the equivalent of nearly 2 billion candy bars and more than the weight of the aircraft carrier Midway.
Despite the tremendous, positive impact of this legislation, a House bill being considered by the Appropriations Committee would allow school districts to apply for waivers to exempt them from the rules if they can document certain growing pains in their compliance efforts. If successful, this effort could ensure that schools would no longer be required to serve fruits and vegetables with meals, and could once again sell foods full of sugar, fat and salt.
Nutrition and child advocates are justifiably outraged by this turn of events. Over the next few months they will wage a David-and-Goliath-style battle against the companies that stand to lose money if the implementation of these standards continues on its successful course.
I sincerely hope the advocates prevail. Without continued vigilance we face a future in which our kids grow ever fatter, resulting in huge costs for health care and reduced productivity, and imperiled national security.
I also urge lawmakers to carefully consider the folly of undoing bipartisan legislation that is undeniably ensuring children eat healthier in the places where they spend so much of their time. They should also recognize that the Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for the school lunch program, is working in partnership with schools nationwide to address the challenges that a very small minority are facing as they implement the standards, and providing flexibility when appropriate.
Which is all the more reason to keep the effort on track so all children have a fighting chance to lead healthier lives.
Major Gen. Tracy Strevey Jr., M.D., U.S. Army (Retired) is a member of Mission: Readiness and the former commander of the U.S. Army Health Services Command.