April 21, 2010 -- Unhealthy school lunches pose a threat to national security, according to a group of retired military leaders.
Leaving 27 percent of young adults "too fat to fight," childhood obesity is jeopardizing military recruitment, according to a report released Tuesday by the non-profit group Mission: Readiness.
The 130-plus retired military leaders making up the organization is joining together to battle the obesity epidemic on the school front.
While putting cafeteria fare on the level of a national security threat may be "dramatic," "it's not entirely unjustified" considering how much students eat during the school day, said Karen Glanz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Schools of Medicine and Nursing.
In the report, the retirees called for less junk food in schools, better nutrition programs for kids and overall better funding for federally provided school lunches. The group also appeared on Capitol Hill Tuesday with Sen. Richard Lugar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to show their support for new legislation on the issue pending in congress.
"Since 1995, the proportion of recruits who failed their physical exams because they were overweight has risen by nearly 70 percent," said Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We need to reverse this trend, and an excellent place to start is by improving the quality of food served in our schools," he added.
National School Lunch Program at Work
While school lunches would not be the obvious culprit behind the military's dwindling recruitment pool, the connection from one to the other works a bit like a chain reaction, pediatric nutrition experts say.
According to the USDA, the National School Lunch Program provided low-cost or free lunches to more than 30.5 million children each school day in 2008.
Through a combination of school lunch and breakfast programs, children "acquire close to 40 percent of their daily calories at school," said Barbara Moore, president of Shape Up America!
If the food provided at school and the quality of education about nutrition isn't sufficient to teach good eating habits and stave off childhood obesity, then there's a good likelihood that these overweight kids will not be fit to enroll in the military, Moore sai, because an overweight child has about an 80 percent chance of remaining overweight as an adult.
So while fattening Sloppy Joes are not the only guilty party in childhood obesity, "better lunches are without a doubt a part of the solution," she said.
On the military end, the report found that obesity is the number one reason that young Americans are unfit to enlist and also the most likely reason that a new recruit will be discharged before their first contract is even up, Mission: Readiness executive director Amy Dawson Taggart said.
And the trend only increases with each passing year, she said.
The reason school lunch reform is so key, Moore added, is that school is an environment in which "we can get to kids" and influence what they eat. At home, it's much harder to change these habits, she said.
Soldiers of Nutrition
"Blaming it all on food is to not recognize that physical activity is a large component, "she said.
Moore agreed, adding that initiatives to up the quality of food in vending machines as well as improve the education kids get about what food they choose to eat outside of school are also essential.
"Since 2006, there's been a law that requires schools with federally funded meal plans to also establish a wellness committee to address nutrition and physical activity standards," she said, but these standards are not universally upheld at this time.
Move Over, Mystery Meat
So what do nutrition experts want to see in today's lunch line?
Moore summed up the changes as: "Fry less and boost the fruits, vegetables and whole grains in school meals."
Whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and less fat, salt, and sugar are all aspects of new guidelines on school-provided food set out by the Institute of Medicine in 2008 and 2009, Glanz said.
If the new guidelines are implemented, as Mission: Readiness is advocating they be, "this will represent a big change in the right direction," Glanz said.
Even without new legislation, schools have begun responding to the new guidelines in light of Michelle Obama's initiative on childhood obesity, said Madeleine Levin, senior policy analyst of school breakfast and lunch programs at the Food Research and Action Center.
"We're seeing a trend that more and more schools are improving their lunch offerings, offering salad bars and getting more fruits and vegetables in," she said. but the bottom line is that "schools will need more resources in order to address new nutrition guidelines."
With the added oomph of a military voice on this issue, Mission: Readiness hopes to help pass that kind of funding, Dawson Taggart said.
This isn't the first time the military has come to the aid of child nutrition. It was military concerns about precisely the opposite issue -- malnourished and underweight recruits -- following World War II that was integral in establishing the National School Lunch Program to begin with.
"Recruiters can help you keep in shape, but if you have weight problems going into military service, it's hard to keep the weight off. That's why we come back to school lunches: Our bodies are being hardwired in our early years of life. If you go into the military with weight issues, keeping it off is like using safety pins on an already split seam."
The military voice represented by Mission: Readiness' retirees will "add to the chorus of voices out there speaking up about this issue," Glanz said. "By raising childhood obesity to level of national security, [this report] could take the issue out of just the health arena."