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COMMENTARY: Poor nutrition threatens military readiness

COMMENTARY: Poor nutrition threatens military readiness

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AMERICA recently celebrated Veterans Day to

recognize all of the men and women who have served our nation in uniform. This holiday is especially meaningful in Virginia, with its numerous military installations and proud tradition of military service.

That is why we, as retired military leaders and Virginians, are so concerned that a full 70 percent of young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 in our state cannot qualify for military service.

Obesity is one of the main disqualifiers, and obesity rates are rising among Virginia’s youth, posing the risk that our pool of potential recruits will shrink even further in the future.

A new report from the nonprofit Mission: Readiness, of which we are members, highlights how a lack of access to fresh and nutritious food is linked to obesity. And the reality is that many Virginia children do not have consistent access to fresh and nutritious food.

This isn’t a new issue. Over 70 years ago, America’s military leaders sounded the alarm that poor nutrition among the nation’s youth was threatening our military’s readiness.

In 1945, Maj. Gen. Lewis Hershey testified to Congress that at least 40 percent of recruits during World War II were rejected for reasons related to poor nutrition.

The following year, Congress established the National School Lunch Program as a “measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children” by ensuring they had access to nutritious meals.

Just as the military leaders of the past knew that promoting healthy eating was an effective way to ensure that the armed forces stayed strong, retired military leaders today believe that increased access to fresh and nutritious food for all children is a national security imperative.

Federal food and nutrition assistance programs work in partnership with states and private nonprofits to address food insecurity by improving access to fresh and nutritious foods for children in the U.S.

Key to this effort are federal nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program, the Summer Food Service Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Women, Infants, and Children program.

These programs are particularly important in Virginia, where young adults are 17 percent more likely to serve in the armed forces than the national average. Increasing access to fresh, nutritious food among Virginia’s youth will help reduce obesity and allow more Virginians to pursue their dreams of serving their country.

Each school day in Virginia, nearly 50 percent of students participate in the National School Lunch Program and consume fewer empty calories and more fruits and vegetables than their peers who do not eat school lunch. Estimates suggest that free or reduced-price school lunches can reduce the rate of obesity by at least 17 percent.

However, the National School Lunch Program alone cannot combat the rising rates of obesity and subsequent medical disqualifiers for military service. Other federal programs are crucial to addressing issues of affordability, access, and availability of fresh and nutritious foods for children.

For example, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the largest federal nutrition program, provided benefits that allowed over 40 million Americans to purchase healthy food in 2018.

In Virginia, 44 percent of families receiving SNAP benefits had children. Participation in SNAP has been shown to reduce the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents and is estimated to reduce childhood obesity by five percent.

We urge Virginia’s congressional delegation to support federal food and nutrition assistance programs.

Every child needs healthy food in order to grow into a healthy adult. Today, as a staggering number of our young adults are not eligible to serve, many because they are too overweight.

Access to fresh and nutritious foods throughout a child’s development must be treated as a key component of our national security. This is critical to ensuring that our youth grow up healthy and prepared to succeed in the military or at whatever career they choose.

Adm. James Loy (retired), who lives in Williamsburg, is the former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow (retired), who lives in Bumpass, is a former commanding general of U.S. Army Recruiting Command.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. David Edgington (retired), who lives in Norfolk, is a former chief of staff of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. All are members of Mission: Readiness, an organization of 750 retired admirals and generals working to strengthen national security by ensuring that kids stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble so they are eligible for military service.

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