The health of our children is critical

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Nearly 70 years ago, Gen. Lewis Hershey asked Congress to create a National School Lunch program to improve the health of American children. Today, our generals are asking us to protect and strengthen these programs to restore the health of children once again, because poor nutrition is having a crippling impact on our nation’s military preparedness.

According to Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan national security organization of more than 450 retired admirals and generals calling for smart investments in America’s children, about 27 percent of all Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are too overweight to serve in the military, and the proportion of recruits who failed physical exams between 1995 and 2008 (because they were overweight) rose by nearly 70 percent.

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Being overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service, and military recruiters are seeing firsthand how unhealthy diets are threatening the defense of our nation.

Unfortunately, the challenges don’t stop at the recruiter’s door. The military also discharges approximately 1,200 new recruits every year as a result of weight issues, costing the military approximately $90 million to replace them.

Last year, Congress provided $518 billion to fund Defense programs, while child nutrition programs rang in at around $27 billion. Nutrition programs represented less than 5 percent of what we spent on Defense last year, even though nutrition programs represent our nation’s first line of defense — they’re preparing children today to be healthy and able-bodied, laying the foundation for a stronger generation of future military recruits.

Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Now, more than 275 years later, nothing could be truer when it comes to child nutrition and childhood obesity.

Poor health and nutrition are also taking a toll on the federal purse.

It is estimated that the nation spends about $14 billion a year to treat obesity and preventable, weight-related diseases in children — more than $190 billion if you also count adults. The military’s TRICARE system shells out about $1 billion annually to treat the same diseases.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the percentage of children who were obese between the ages of 6 and 11 more than doubled, increasing from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. Over the same period, the percentage of adolescents who were obese between the ages of 12 and 19 is more than four times higher, increasing from 5 percent to nearly 21 percent.

And childhood obesity rates have accelerated faster than adult obesity rates: While adult obesity rates have doubled over the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates have tripled. At that pace, half or more of the American adult population could be obese by 2030, with serious implications for future productivity and economic growth.

Despite these grim statistics, there is hope. Studies continue to show repeated exposure to healthy foods and healthy food environments can increase consumption of items like fruits and vegetables and build healthy habits, especially among children. 

Investing in better eating habits now could help to save taxpayers billions in the future. It’s the difference between investing 14 cents for an apple today and investing $14 billion in healthcare costs tomorrow.

Even though some children struggle with obesity, it’s important to remember it does not mean they have enough to eat. More than 16 million children in this country struggle with hunger. In many cases, a school meal, an afterschool snack or a summer meal may be the only access to healthy foods a child has.

Without breakfast and lunch, our children can’t focus in the classroom.

Children who increase their school breakfast participation show greater improvements in math scores, attendance and punctuality, and also are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and hyperactivity.

Classroom settings prepare children for productive futures, giving them the tools to become responsible and productive adults. Children without food lack focus, and are often ill-prepared to enter the workforce in later years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eating a healthy breakfast is associated with improved cognitive function (especially memory), reduced absenteeism and improved mood. Feeding our children is feeding our future.

Today, my colleagues and I on the Senate Agriculture Committee are officially beginning the child nutrition reauthorization effort, because the health of our children has critical implications for our nation’s biggest priorities, including a stronger national security and a robust economic future. The investments we make and the priorities we establish in child nutrition today could mean the difference between an economically prosperous and stable future or a rocky road ahead, with consequences rippling across every part of the economy.

The good news is that we have begun to change the future for millions of American children and for our national security by making child nutrition programs a national priority.

It’s our job to keep moving forward.

Stabenow is the junior senator from Michigan, serving since 2001. She is chairwoman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, and also sits on the Budget; the Energy and Natural Resources; and the Finance committees.