WASHINGTON — During Congressional hearings in 1945, concerns were voiced that nearly 40 percent of military recruits were turned away due to poor nutrition and health during World War II. Stunted growth from malnutrition kept many men from serving their country. This caused Army Gen. Lewis Hershey to delivery testimony that helped launch the National School Lunch Program in 1946, a campaign aimed at increasing the height and weight of young people. Today the U.S. military is grappling with the opposite problem.
A new study shows that 9 million, or 27 percent, of 17- to 24-year-olds in the United States are too overweight to serve in the military– a problem that is causing military leaders to take action.
The report released Tuesday by Mission: Readiness, a non-profit organization of more than 100 retired military leaders, highlights the challenges the military has in preparing the next generation of soldiers to serve. Since 1995, the proportion of recruits rejected during their physical exams because they are overweight has increased by 70 percent.
“It has been shown that for the first time in our history, the health of children today is worse than that of their parent,” said Brig. Gen. Clara Adams-Ender (Ret.) at a press conference. “To reverse this trend, something must be done now.”
But are they taking the right actions? Mission: Readiness is making strides at achieving its goal of overhauling school lunch programs to make them more healthful. But it seems there needs to be more emphasis placed on fitness programs as well.
In total, 75 percent of young Americans are unable to join the military and being overweight is the leading medical reason for rejection. Other disqualifiers include criminal records, drug use and lack of education.
“This is not just a national security issue, it is also an education issue, an educational performance issue and a health issue,” said Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a press conference. “The reality of the fact that so many youngsters are not fit for military service is indeed a wake-up call for this country.”
The group came to Capitol Hill on April 19 to urge Vilsack, and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to beef up the Child Nutrition Act in the following ways:
- Remove junk food and high-calorie beverages from U.S. schools.
- Develop school programs to educate students and parents to adopt healthier life-long exercise and eating habits.
- Support the administration’s proposal of an increase of $1 billion per year for 10 years for programs that would enhance nutrition standards, improve quality of of meals served in schools and enable more child to have access to these programs.
Not only does the military support these measures, but a 2010 national survey of 1,001 American adults showed that 83 percent support expanding the act to “provide healthier food and cover more kids,” according to the Child Nutrition Initiative.
“It’s a sad irony that while we work to address hunger and food insecurity among nearly 20 percent of our overall population, nearly one-third of our children are overweight or obese,” said Lugar.
A Senate committee passed child nutrition legislation earlier this year. Lugar said that it makes “great strides” in addressing obesity by getting junk food out of schools and improving the quality of meals.
“It’s imperative that we get a robust bill through the Congress this year,” Vilsack said.
This is true. But some experts say that Mission: Readiness and Congress need to place much more emphasis on fitness programs as well. Today, kids are not moving enough.
A report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that over the past five years the amount of time the average 8- to 18-year-old spent consuming media—including laying around watching TV or surfing the web, has increased dramatically. It is up by 1 hour, 17 minutes a day — from 6 hours, 21 minutes in 2004 to 7 hours, 38 minutes in 2009.
That’s more than 53 hours a week.
Susan Ellis, a registered dietician at the Clinical Nutrition Center in Denver, said that child nutrition is definitely a problem, but the biggest issue in regards to child obesity is the lack of physical fitness.
“Kids are not active enough today,” Ellis said. “There is not hardy physical education in the schools anymore and this is the biggest concern.”
Mission: Readiness and other advocates need to push Congress to ensure that children are getting enough exercise at school. Or, perhaps the military could step up their recruiting programs to include weight-loss camps for those who are obese.
“We do have some programs when people show up. If they are overweight, but not over the obesity limit, recruiters can work with them,” said Rear Adm. James A. Barnett Jr. (Ret.) But if they are considered obese, it could take months of intense physical activity and dieting for someone to get back to a normal weight, according to Ellis. There is not one formula that would work for everyone either.
And unfortunately, the military cannot pay to provide weight-loss camps for everyone who is over the limit.
“Whenever they come, we do tell them what is necessary in order to get fit,” said Brig. Gen. Clara Adams-Ender (Ret.). “But you must understand, we can’t afford to run another program because that is not part of our mission.”