Childhood Obesity and National Security: Part One of My Interview with “Mission Readiness”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on April 26, 2011

In 2008, a group of retired Generals, Admirals, and other senior military leaders banded together out of a growing concern that the majority of America’s youth are unfit to serve in the armed forces, presenting a serious long-term threat to our national security.  With an impressive Executive Advisory Council that includes retired General John Shalikashvili (Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and retired General Wesley Clark (Former Supreme Allied Commander -NATO), the two hundred members of Mission Readiness bring a credible, bipartisan voice to a variety of issues affecting military preparedness.

Last April, the group issued a seminal report on childhood obesity called “Too Fat to Fight.” In it, Mission Readiness stated that

an alarming 75 percent of all young Americans 17 to 24 years of age are unable to join the military because they failed to graduate from high school, have criminal records, or are physically unfit.

Being overweight or obese turns out to be the leading medical reason why applicants fail to qualify for military service. Today, otherwise excellent recruit prospects, some of them with generations of sterling military service in their family history, are being turned away because they are just too overweight.

I was interested in learning more about how these retired military leaders hope to address obesity in our country, and Mission Readiness arranged for me to speak with retired Air Force General Norman Seip.  Here’s Part One of our interview.  Part Two will be published  tomorrow.

TLT: I know Mission Readiness was very active in lobbying Congress last fall to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act.  Is it fair to say that your group believes improving school food is an important factor in combating obesity?

GNS: That’s true, but we don’t want people to think we’re putting this obesity problem all on the schools.  We realized that children take upwards of 40% of their calories in school – some of them get almost all of their calories in school, depending on how many meals they eat — and the timing was right with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.  But we never want anyone to think we’re laying this all on the teachers and the school system.  It’s going to take industry, it’s going to take local, regional, state and national government intervention to address the obesity epidemic in our country.

TLT:  As you know, the Child Nutrition Act provides schools with an additional six cents per child per meal for improved school food.  However, most experts feel that in order to meet the new nutritional requirements of the act, schools will need far more funding.  Does Mission Readiness feel the law is under-funded?

GNS: When you look at how much we’re being allotted per child, sure, it’s probably under-funded, but it’s a start.  And it’s more pennies than where we were last year at this time.  But we have a long way to go.  Our biggest challenge right now is to

General Norman Seip (ret.)

have Congress actually put the money into the act.  It’s one thing to have the act reauthorized, it’s another to get the appropriators to put the money into the program so that (1) we can start helping the schools buy the right equipment they need, and (2) find those best programs out there that we can then export to school systems to use with students, cafeteria workers and families to get everyone involved.**

I should add that I’ve seen some school systems find some very creative ways of finding money through other sources, and teaming with outside agencies that want to be part of the solving of this epidemic.  I don’t think we’ll ever see enough money from the federal government to make the kind of meals that you and I want to see served, but I think there are means out there based on the ingenuity, commitment and enthusiasm of schools and their staffs to make this a community effort.

TLT: I’ve seen some districts get outside help and funding, as you say, and that’s great, but it does create a patchwork where some communities can get that outside help and funding, and some can’t.

GNS: Yes, the bad news is it’s piecemeal, but the good news is that there are people stepping up.  Just as we see with early childhood education, I think we’ll see people sharing resources as far as grants and aid, and other organizations getting involved and tackling this problem for our country.

TLT:  Can you tell me more about the funding you’re trying to secure from Congress to support the CNA’s goals?

GNS: Right now we’re going to schools in Georgia [Ed. Note:  Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston is the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees school nutrition programs], and our message to Congress is, help us turn this school kitchen that just has a deep fryer and a warmer into a real kitchen. Otherwise it becomes a burden on those lunch workers and administrators who are trying their best to meet the new regulations but just become frustrated because they didn’t get the resources, tools or training to be successful.  So we’re asking for funding for schools to upgrade kitchen equipment and to help schools provide cafeteria workers with better training.  It adds up to $10 billion – one billion a year for ten years.**

TLT:  Mission Readiness says it wants to get rid of high calorie, low nutrient foods offered in schools through a la carte, vending machines and other competitive sales.  But one concern I have here in my own district is the sale of foods that look OK on paper but are still what most of us would consider junk food, like Flaming Hot Cheetos that are baked, not fried, or Rice Krispie treats that are only 200 calories per serving.   Do you think the new Institute of Medicine standards for competitive foods go far enough?

GNS: I think the standards are rigorous enough, but can you play around and still meet the standards? Absolutely. You have to ask, who’s running the program in our schools?  What’s their commitment?  Are they looking just to take a paycheck home or are they seriously concerned about the nutritional well-being of the people they’re serving — the young men and women who are going to be our future? We’ve got to ask them, is this the type of meal you’d want to be serving your child?  And if the answer is no, then why serve it to 600 students in a high school or middle school?

As a side note, I met with some folks in the beverage industry who are driving forward to eliminate empty calories out of the soda machine. And I said, “Aren’t you worried about your business?”  And I was told, “General Seip, in ten years those kids will not know anything different.  They will never have seen a vending machine that wasn’t just selling water and high quality fruit drinks.” The beverage industry sees the writing on the wall.  If you add 125 calories a day to someone’s diet and you’re not increasing their exercise, you’re going to have a problem ten years down the road.

* * *

I’ll have Part Two of my interview with General Seip up tomorrow.  In it, we discuss whether the military is doing a good job of keeping its own enlistees fit, whether Mission Readiness agrees with the criticisms of the far right wing of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, and then I ask the Big Question:  does Mission Readiness really believe that America can reverse the current obesity epidemic?  Stay tuned!

** CORRECTION: After posting, I received this clarification from Mission Readiness about some of the funding issues discussed here.  Specifically:  ”When the General mentioned the 10 billion figure, he actually meant $4.5 billion. (The Administration at the time proposed $10 billion over 10 years, but the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act provided only $4.5 billion.) At any rate, this was mandatory money and was not for training or equipment upgrades, rather it was just for the reauthorization of the bill which included increased reimbursements for school meals, etc. What we’re talking about now is discretionary funding. Since 2009, Congress has appropriated $125 million for equipment upgrades. During that time period, there were more than $600 million in grant requests for this need. We are asking for an additional $25 million appropriation in FY 2012. This money would be specifically allocated for kitchen equipment upgrades. We also want Congress to maintain its investment in training and technical assistance through Team Nutrition grants, which Congress last appropriated at $15 million.”

 

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Suriano April 26, 2011 at 7:31 am

I was so pleased to see this interview this morning! I felt that Mission:Readiness’ report last year was one of the most powerful pieces written in support of food reform in the US. While there are many arguments for why we must improve nutrition and fight obesity in our country, Mission Readiness very legitimately added the issue of national security to the list. Tapping into people’s sense of safety is effective and motivating. I feel from your interview that Mission Readiness is a practical thinking and pro-active group. I hope they continue their efforts and are heard on a national level as their voice is a very important one.

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 26, 2011 at 9:34 am

Lisa: I agree. National security is something both parties stand behind, and this group’s agenda is bipartisan and critically important. I’m hoping that this post (which also appears on my Houston Chronicle version of TLT, where commenters are much more right-wing) will help put an end to this idea that caring about obesity is the hallmark of a Nanny-State-loving liberal. And I agree that Too Fat to Fight is a tremendously useful and powerful report. I hope readers will take a second to click that link and read more.

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Maggie April 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Interesting interview.

I hadn’t thought of the “10 years in the future” viewpoint as far as the beverage choices. It’s a great thought & I can see it relating to all food choices. Still, navigating these next 10 years might be interesting – accomplishing all the goals, but keeping the program running…so that kids in need don’t go hungry.

Who do you think he’s talking about when he says “…who’s running the program in our schools?” and “Are they looking just to take a paycheck home…”? Do you he talking about districts that have gone the route of the contracted (for profit) food service provider?

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 26, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Maggie – totally agree. I almost feel like we need to somehow prop up the system for the next ten years as we get the kids used to junk out and bring in the young ones who aren’t expecting to see, e.g, Baked Flaming Hot Cheetos. As for what the General meant there, I think he was just speaking generally about whomever is running a district’s food program that way – I doubt he was indirectly referring to FSMCs.

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