Thursday, December 5, 2013
By RICHARD TUTTLE
WEST BATH - As a retired general and the father of three children who attended Portland public schools, I was pleased to learn that the Board of Education has decided that all food served at school must meet nutrition standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge. I hope that other Maine school districts will follow Portland's example by updating their food standards.
Childhood obesity in Maine and across our nation not only threatens our children's health, but also our national security.
Obesity is the leading medical reason why young adults cannot join the military. In fact, Department of Defense statistics show that about a quarter of entry-level candidates are too overweight to either enter the military or sustain themselves through the first enlistment.
The bottom line is that the armed forces must have a sufficient pool of fit young adults to draw from in order to field enough recruits with the excellent qualifications needed to staff a 21st-century military.
The results of unfit recruits are expensive. Every year, the military discharges more than 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts are up due to weight problems. The military must then spend $50,000 to recruit and train each replacement, at a cost of $60 million each year.
The Department of Defense also spends more than $1 billion a year to treat weight-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease through the military's health insurance system for active-duty personnel, their dependents and veterans.
The DOD has already identified obesity as a major issue for the military, and has begun taking steps to remedy the problem on its own installations.
In the most sweeping changes of military food services in 20 years, the armed services are bringing healthier foods with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lower-fat offerings to dining facilities, Defense Department schools and other places where service members and their families buy food on base, including vending machines and snack bars.
The civilian sector can help the military solve the obesity and recruiting problem by considering a range of options to combat childhood obesity.
Schools are a good place to start, since children consume up to half of their daily calories at school. The retired generals and admirals of the national security nonprofit Mission: Readiness are joining parents and nutritionists in supporting stronger nutrition standards for foods and beverages served and sold in schools.
Maine is getting help on this issue at the federal level. In December 2010, with the support of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, Congress approved a robust child nutrition reauthorization that required the USDA to take two steps related to child nutrition in school.
The first step was to update nutrition standards for school meal programs; the second was to update the standards for "competitive foods" sold in vending machines, school stores and as a la carte cafeteria items.
The child nutrition bill also recognized the need for technical assistance and training for food service staff. For many smaller Maine schools, this assistance and training is especially important.
As well, the USDA will provide funding for two years to help state agencies implement updated nutrition standards.
Even before passage of this new law, Maine received about $350,000 in 2010 from federal Team Nutrition Grants to provide a variety of training and technical assistance for school cafeteria staff.
Last year, Maine received additional federal resources to help enroll more schools in the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge, which provides more online training and technical assistance for cafeteria workers.
These are all great starts in what needs to be a full-fledged battle against childhood obesity.
Of course, the child obesity epidemic didn't happen overnight -- and we can't resolve it overnight, either.
While improving the quality of foods and beverages served and sold in schools is not a solution by itself, such efforts should be part of comprehensive action, involving both parents and schools, to help students build stronger bodies with less excess fat.
Helping our children eat healthier and attain physical fitness is good for Maine, for our families and for our national security.
Richard Tuttle is a retired Air Force brigadier general who now lives in West Bath.