Ever heard the term “fat-fighters” or “adipose army” bandied about in a light-hearted moment? Well the United States military is in no mood for such jokes so watch out. 

On Tuesday U.S. Senator Richard Lugar and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined retired generals and admirals who are members of the non-profit group, Mission: Readiness, to release new findings on the “dramatic increase of obesity among young adults” in the country between the ages of 17 and 24 – a trend that they argue is reducing the pool of healthy young adults available for military service. 

The findings are part of a report called Too Fat to Fight, which argues that weight problems have become “the leading medical reason why recruits are rejected for service.” The report would not be the first time that the military has spoken out about children’s health in the U.S. – in 1945, military leaders expressed concern about the “poor health and nutrition experienced by many potential recruits,” and Congress responded by creating the national school lunch program as a matter of national security. 

Rising childhood obesity has increasingly worried policymakers here and even the First Lady, Michelle Obama, recently launched a campaign called “Let’s Move!” to bring together community leaders, teachers, doctors, nurses, and parents in a nationwide effort to tackle the challenge of childhood obesity within a generation. 

Representing ‘Mission: Readiness’ Lieutenant General Norman Seip said, “We believe that the child obesity issue is so serious it has become a threat to our national security.” Rear Admiral James Barnett added, “While we are meeting our recruitment targets today, those of us who have served in command roles are worried about the trends we see.” 

He said that U.S. national security in the year 2030 would be absolutely dependent on reversing the alarming rates of child obesity: “When over a quarter of young adults are too fat to fight, we need to take notice. We urge Congress to take action on child nutrition this year,” he argued. 

The report noted additional research showing that up to 40 percent of children’s daily calorie intake occurs at school and that 80 percent of children who were overweight between the ages of 10 to 15 were obese by age 25. “Improving school nutrition is therefore a crucial area for reducing or preventing child obesity,” it said. 

In meetings with Congress the retired military leaders plan to call upon legislators to enact a “robust child nutrition bill” that would get the junk food and remaining high-calorie beverages out of the nation’s schools; support the administration’s proposal of an increase of $1 billion per year for ten years for child nutrition programs that would improve nutrition standards, upgrade the quality of meals served in schools and enable more children to have access to these programs; and help develop new school-based strategies, based on research, that help parents and children adopt healthier life-long eating and exercise habits. 

“In 1946, Congress passed the National School Lunch Act as a matter of national security,” Amy Dawson Taggart, national director of Mission: Readiness said. “Back then young people were undernourished, and now they are poorly nourished. Too many kids are carrying too many pounds, and improving school nutrition is an important place to start. This isn’t about looking good in a uniform, it’s about being healthy and fit to do the work of the nation.” 

In Congress Mission: Readiness will argue that the U.S. is “confronted by a sobering statistic: [that] 75 percent of young Americans are ineligible to serve their country because they have either failed to graduate high school, engaged in criminal activity, or are physically or mentally unfit.” In particular it will emphasise that more than 9 million young adults – 27 percent of all Americans age 17 to 24 – are too overweight to join the military 

The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry recently approved a child nutrition bill that takes important first steps toward addressing childhood obesity. The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

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