DOD backs efforts to keep junk food out of schools
WASHINGTON, Sept. 25, 2012 – The Defense Department today underscored its support for the work of a group of retired generals and admirals who have again called on Congress to help in reversing the nationwide trend of obesity in young people.
Charles E. Milam, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, spoke at the National Press Club here alongside representatives of Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit group that works with Congress, the Agriculture Department and other federal offices to limit children’s access to high-calorie, low-nutrient foods in public schools.
“We’ve always been a leader in health and fitness,” Milam said of the military, “but we cannot do this alone.” He noted that 75 percent of service members and their families live off installations, making it unlikely they would be affected by dietary changes made on bases.
Mission: Readiness was formed in 2008 by some 200 retired generals and admirals who elevated concerns of childhood obesity with a 2010 report titled, “Too Fat to Fight.” The report revealed that one in four 17- to 24-year-olds could not be recruited for military service, mostly due to obesity. The group appealed to Congress to mandate healthy foods – and restrict unhealthy ones – in public schools. Congress agreed, and responded with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The nonprofit group has worked closely with the Agriculture Department in the past two years to ensure that public school lunches are healthy in what members called the first phase of the endeavor. Today, retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2001 to 2005, and others reiterated their call to action for the second phase of the challenge: ridding public school vending machines and cafeterias of unhealthy snacks and beverages.
Research shows that on any given day, 16 million children receive unhealthy snacks or beverages at school, amounting to 400 billion calories of low-nutrient, or “junk” food, sold in public schools annually, Myers said.
“There is strong evidence that replacing these empty calories with healthy choices can be part of the fix,” Myers said. New York City stopped selling junk food and sugary drinks in its schools for grades kindergarten through 8, and obesity rates have dropped 5.5 percent in four years, he said. Schools in Philadelphia and throughout Mississippi are taking similar measures, he added.
Stopping the routine selling of junk food to children gives them the message that they have to lead healthy lifestyles, Myers said. Government efforts should be part of “comprehensive action” involving parents and schools, he said.
“The armed services simply must have an adequate pool of recruits,” the general said, and the group’s efforts are trying to ensure that such recruiting problems don’t become a national security crisis.
“We want our recruits to make healthy choices,” Myers said. “We want our recruits fit to fight. One of the saddest things you can do as a commander is to ask someone to leave service because they are not fit to fight.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman R. Seip said the trend toward childhood obesity did not occur overnight and will not be fixed overnight. “We’re not going to wake up one day and have only water and apples in vending machines,” he said.
When Congress passed the federal school lunch program in 1946, Seip said, it was partly out of concern from the military that 40 percent of its recruits were being rejected due to malnourishment. “Today, they’re not undernourished, they’re overnourished, but with empty calories,” he said.
“We’re not picking on schools, but most children receive 40 to 50 percent of their calories at school,” Seip said. Ridding schools of unhealthy foods “won’t be a silver bullet,” he added, “but they should be part of it.”
Milam, who has worked to bring healthier foods to installations, said he is convinced that young people will choose healthy foods if given the options and in the right ways.
“If you … put the fruit in a nice, ceramic bowl and put the candy bars out of reach and close the ice cream cooler,” he said, “when given the choice, I think our young men and women will choose the healthy options.”