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Retired Generals: School Nutrition Vital To Military Readiness

Bryan Thompson
Heartland Health Monitor
Retired U.S. Army Major General Larry Lust of Lenexa is amon a group of retired military leaders seeking improvements in school nutrition.

A nonpartisan, nonprofit group of more than 500 retired generals and admirals see school nutrition as an important factor in military readiness.

The group, Mission: Readiness, on Wednesday released the Kansas version of a report drawing a connection between healthier school meals and the pool of potential recruits for America’s armed forces.

Retired U.S. Army Major General Larry Lust of Lenexa said nearly one of every three Americans age 17 to 24 is too obese to qualify for military service.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if that doesn’t cause you some concern, you need to check your pulse,” he said.

Lust cited figures from the U.S. Department of Defense showing that 71 percent of young Kansans are not eligible to serve in the military. Disqualifying factors include lack of education and a history of crime or drug abuse, but the primary medical reason is obesity.

Lust said children get nearly half of their daily caloric intake at school, which makes the nutrient value associated with those calories important.

“We know what the old standards got us,” he said. “The new standards are helping us to walk back from where we are right now. … If you think medical expenses are high now, think where we’re going to be if these numbers don’t change.”

According to the report, the military is not immune to these expenses: 12.4 percent of the fighting force was obese in 2011, compared with 7.7 percent in 2002. That means the rate of obesity rose 62 percent in just nine years.

Excess weight among service members and their families is costing the Department of Defense more than $1 billion a year in health care spending, Lust said. It costs another $500 million to replace the estimated 5,000 troops who are dismissed each year because they’re too unfit to serve.

The costs can’t all be measured in dollars, though. Excess weight and weak bones are blamed for an unprecedented increase in non-combat injuries among members of a brigade serving in Afghanistan.

A 2010 study in The Lancet, the British medical journal, found there were 72 percent more medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan for stress fractures, severe sprains and similar injuries than for combat wounds. The report said these injuries were due, in part, to poor nutrition and a lack of physical activity during adolescence.

The military leaders say good nutrition can help reduce these problems, and schools can play a pivotal role in making sure children get the nutrition they need.

Retired Army Brigadier General John Schmader of Easton said there’s evidence that the more nutritious school meals and snacks resulting from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which was championed by first lady Michelle Obama, are beginning to catch on with kids.

“Unfortunately, though, there have been efforts to let schools retreat from these important standards,” Schmader said. “Like our armed forces, we should not stop when the going gets tough. We, along with all the rest of the retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness, urge (the) Kansas congressional delegation to support the updated school nutrition standards, and refrain from any attempt to weaken or roll back current guidelines.”

Amy Dawson Taggart, who founded Mission: Readiness, said child nutrition has historically had bipartisan support in Congress since the school lunch program was created in 1946 to address the malnourishment that left 40 percent of would-be recruits unfit for service.

“Regrettably, it has gotten a little politicized in recent times,” she said. “You can call a group of generals a lot of things. A hotbed of liberalism is not typically one of them.

“What the generals are here today to talk about is the fact that high-quality child nutrition in schools is not conservative common sense or liberal common sense. It is plain common sense, and it is what’s good and right and true for the kids of this country.”

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

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