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Addressing childhood obesity also supports US military readiness

(AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Students in the new Army prep course run around a track during physical training exercises at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022. The new program prepares recruits for the demands of basic training. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Our childhood obesity epidemic here in the U.S. is as concerning as it is well-documented.  It’s no secret that obesity trends have been on the rise for the last 20 years. In fact, in 2016, 18.5 percent of youth ages 2-19 were classified as obese. And it’s only getting worse. 

The implications of these data and the impact of poor nutrition on our overall health and well-being are disheartening and demand action. And while the broad strokes of this challenge may be familiar to you, what is less well known is the way childhood obesity is inextricably linked to our country’s long-term national security.

Nationwide, 11 percent of our 17- to 24-year-olds do not qualify for military service strictly due to excess weight. If you combine this with other eligibility factors such as crime or drug abuse or even academic issues, this shocking ineligibility figure has held steady at 71 percent for years.  

However, the Department of Defense’s most recent figures show that an astonishing 77 percent of Americans of prime recruiting age would be ineligible for military service. This is a massive increase. Over three-quarters of American young people are ineligible due to some combination of factors, chief among them obesity.

In response to these rising trends, Mission: Readiness was created 13 years ago to address the driving factors — like poor diet and poor nutrition — contributing to childhood obesity and other barriers to qualifying for military service. Featuring a cadre of retired flag and general officers, this organization set out to raise the visibility of three specific key drivers: Recruits were not academically prepared, were overweight or had a record of crime or drug abuse.

Despite the persistent and impactful efforts of Mission: Readiness and recent progress at the federal level in prioritizing reducing hunger and improving nutrition, both of us remain deeply concerned about the health of our nation’s youth, as well as America’s national security.  

To reverse course and ensure that the next generation of Americans can be healthy and prepared for whatever career they wish to pursue, there are several actions we must take.  

We must start by ensuring all children have consistent access to fresh and nutritious foods year-round. Our children not only need access to enough food, but they also need access to the right, healthy foods. Thankfully, Congress has long supported such efforts in a bipartisan manner. 

But with the Farm Bill due for consideration in 2023, federal lawmakers have a pivotal opportunity to keep building. Here are a few ways they can dramatically improve our nutrition and health: 

  • Congress can make much-needed improvements to help the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that prioritize nutrition and provide additional healthy meals more easily. 
  • Congress can take action on a child nutrition reauthorization for the first time in over a decade, providing the opportunity to make evidence-based reforms to federal child nutrition programs.
  • Congress can initiate updates to our school meal programs that have been long overdue, and we can use this opportunity to expand access and increase reimbursement rates to provide healthier food, cut administrative red tape and continue pandemic flexibilities.
  • Congress can update the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) by raising the eligibility age for children (currently capped at age five), offering alternative delivery options and adding online enrollment.  

These commonsense, nonpartisan, policy-level reforms will help reduce barriers and stigma and improve access for those most in need of accessing these vital programs.

Such actions, if taken by Congress, will be critical first steps toward pushing back against the factors fueling America’s growing military ineligibility problem. But, despite the fact that we’ve framed this challenge in national security terms, it’s important to underscore that it carries far broader and alarmingly long-term implications.  

Every sector of society is actively competing for the 23 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds who happen to qualify for military service. The demand for these individuals is high, and our nation will significantly benefit by working to shift as many young people as we can to this group and to grow this 23 percent significantly.  

Only by doing this — and by prioritizing nutrition and emotional, physical and mental health — will we truly start preparing our young people to be successful in whatever way they choose.

Bill Frist, MD, is the former U. S. Senate Majority Leader and a member of Council for a Strong America’s Senior Policy Council. Fernandez L. “Frank” Ponds is a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and a member of Mission: Readiness.

Tags Bill Frist Childhood obesity military readiness Obesity in the United States Politics of the United States SNAP benefits

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