School lunch helping make Americans too fat to enlist?

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More than a quarter of all Americans between the ages of 17 to 24 are too overweight to join the military, according to a new report highlighted by the Associated Press. That many Americans are too tubby to meet the basic entry requirements for military service isn’t new—in 2008 roughly 12,000 would-be soldiers failed the initial military physical because they were overweight, and last yearthe Pentagon lamented the fact that, between obesity, medical and physical problems, illegal drug use and other issues, 75% of military-age Americans were ineligible for service. That figure is of particular concern to military recruiters working to keep ranks filled as the U.S. carries on two wars. To help recruits slim down to meet basic weight requirements—depending on specific age, about 200 lbs for a man 6′ tall, and around 150 lbs. for a 5’6″ woman—some recruiters have even taken it upon themselves to help whip wannabe soldiers into shape. Yet beyond helping overweight recruits slim down, some military personnel are more concerned with examining how everyone got so heavy in the first place. According to the Associated Press, a group of retired military officers has joined forces to declare high calorie, low nutrition school lunches a threat to national security.

AP writer Mary Clare Jalonick explains: “The retired officers are saying that school lunches have helped make the nation’s young people so fat that fewer of them can meet the military’s physical fitness standards, and recruitment is in jeopardy.”

Though potential recruits can get turned away from service for a range of reasons, in recent years obesity has become the number one cause of recruits failing to meet basic entry standards. Reversing national obesity trends is not simply about improving public health, the group of officers contend, it’s about protecting national security. As retired Navy Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr., a member of the group of retired officers, told the AP: “When over a quarter of young adults are too fat to fight, we need to take notice.”

And a major factor contributing to the ballooning of America’s youth, the officers contend, is poor quality, high calorie foods slopped onto lunch trays in our schools. The group of retired officers are lobbying Congress this week to cut out junk food and sugary sodas from schools and develop campaigns to promote healthier habits among school children. As the AP highlights, bill now awaiting a vote in the Senate would devote $4.5 billion to improving the nutritional value of school lunches over the next 10 years.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the military has tried to influence what is served in school cafeterias in the name of national security—only last time they were fighting to combat malnutrition in potential recruits. As the AP reports:

“During World War II, military leaders had the opposite problem, reporting that many recruits were rejected because of stunted growth and inadequate nutrition. After the war, military leaders pushed Congress to establish the national school lunch program so children would grow up healthier… The program was established in 1946, ‘as a measure of national security,’ according to the original bill language.”