The increasing waistline of American children and adults is a pervading topic nowadays. Even with Subway officially overtaking McDonald’s perch at the top of the fast food chains and Beyonce stepping in to lend a hand to First Lady’s Michelle Obama’s Lets Move! campaign, the numbers are still sobering—about one-third of American adults is obese and one in three American children is either overweight or obese. This monumental weight gain within the past generation—a total of 39 million pounds, or an average of 37 pounds per person—has already had consequences for almost all facets of American life. What will happen to America’s armed forces when this generation becomes “unfit to fight?”
Last week, Mission: Readiness, an organization of retired generals, admirals and other senior military leaders, working to ensure American youth have the foundation to serve in the military, should they choose to do so, participated in a briefing on Capitol Hill to address this question. Hosted by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), “Leveraging the School Environment to Improve Nutrition, Prevent Obesity, and Maintain National Security,” brought together a panel of experts to discuss a statistic that reflects the broadening consequences of obesity rates: 75 percent of 17-24 year olds are unable to qualify for military service because of a lack of high school degree, criminal record or obesity.
According to the panel of armed forces and education officials, obesity, military strength and national security are all linked—if today’s generation is too unfit to serve in the military, the armed forces will suffer a lack of qualified candidates. Retired Lieutenant General in the US Air Force Norman Seip, retired Lieutenant General in the US Marine Corps Carol Mutter, retired major general for the US Army George Alexander and director of food services for Franklin Township Community Schools in Indianapolis Courtney Williams spoke on the strategies to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity. All of the speakers stressed the importance of a comprehensive approach involving nutrition and physical activity, and the role of schools as a starting point for encouraging healthy eating habits and appropriate levels of physical activity.
Increased physical education, a return to “scratch cooking” and “stealth health” initiatives were all suggested by the panel, which emphasized the role of school in a child’s life and learned habits - around 40% of a child’s calories are consumed during the school day. Recess, the traditional break for physical activity in elementary schools, is often overlooked in light of budget cuts and increased emphasis on standardized testing. About 7 to 13 percent of public elementary schools do not have recess, and for those who do, the break averages only 23.8 to 27.7 minutes a day. Studies have shown that time spent outdoors during recess or organized school activities can increase physical activity, engage children in nature and help kids maintain a healthy weight.
The issues and solutions discussed by Senator Lugar, Mission: Readiness and other speakers reinforce the importance of the work being done to reconnect kids with nature. In April, Sierra Club announced $1 million in grants as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Joining Forces” initiative to support military families. Sierra Club’s Military Families Outdoors initiative is partnering with the National Military Family Association’s Operation Purple® and the YMCA of the USA to send thousands of military children to camp this summer. With families struggling to deal with the emotional and financial pressures of two wars, the outdoors can help relieve the stresses of military deployment while ensuring a new generation of healthy kids with the physical fitness to achieve their goals – whatever they may be.
--by Jackie Kantor, BBTO summer intern