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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Editorial: Toward a fitter fighting force

Military leaders call for improved child nutrition programs.

Last update: November 10, 2010 - 6:57 PM
Star Tribune

Kids trundling through school cafeterias this Veterans Day likely don't realize that they owe a debt of gratitude to the military for the food on their lunch trays.

After too many malnourished men showed up at World War II recruiting stations, the armed forces made a mighty push for the National School Lunch Program after the war's end. But now the nation has the opposite but equally pressing problem: an obesity epidemic. Between 1995 and 2008, the military saw a nearly 70 percent increase in the proportion of recruits whose weight caused them to fail physicals. More than a quarter of potential recruits in the 17- to 24-year-old age group weigh too much to enlist.

The crisis has spurred more than 100 retired generals and admirals back into battle, this time on the public-policy front. Their call to action -- for healthier school food and programs promoting exercise and nutrition -- should be heeded by educators and parents and by Congress, which needs to act quickly to pass a critical child nutrition bill. A nation whose young people are too fat to fight, as a report from this organization of retired brass put it, is one with diminished defense capabilities, not too mention soaring health care costs. This is nothing short of a national security risk.

"The strength of our service, our military, our guarantors of security -- it's not the high tech, it's the men and women who serve,'' said retired Air Force Lt. General Norman R. Seip, who served for 35 years and is now a spokesman for Mission: Readiness, the operational name for the emeritus commanders sounding the alarm.

That so many young people are ineligible to serve is "very distressing,'' Seip said, and has repercussions in civilian life. Fitness is a critical component of a high-quality workforce that competes in a global economy and fuels prosperity on the home front.

It makes sense that these respected military leaders are targeting school cafeterias in one of their first offensives. They are pushing the U.S. House to pass a bill already approved unanimously by the Senate -- the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. If passed, this landmark legislation not only would reauthorize school and child nutrition programs, but would commit an extra $4.5 billion over the next decade to make critical improvements. It would bolster the quality of food served by instituting an increase in per-meal reimbursement -- something that hasn't happened in decades. The bill also would set national nutritional standards for foods sold at schools throughout the day -- helping push junk food and sugary drinks from campuses.

The clock is ticking on this important bill. The House needs to act before the end of the year or the policy changes will be lost. Mission: Readiness said the bill would not boost the deficit. Tapping into other programs' funds would help offset the additional spending.

Seip acknowledges that the bill is not a silver bullet for the nation's obesity epidemic. Instead, he said, it's part of the "silver buckshot" of measures that the nation needs to protect future generations. Public health programs that encourage kids and parents to adopt better eating and exercise habits outside of school are also crucial. But with 31 million children served daily in school nutrition programs, the Senate bill would definitely have an impact.

As for those who argue that the nation can no longer afford these types of programs, Seip said it's simply a matter of priorities. The battle-hardened brass of Mission: Readiness believe the nation's security is at stake. Supporting the troops this Veterans Day means enlisting in their cause.

** This Editorial can be found on the Star Tribune Website

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