Students consume about 400 billion calories from junk food sold at school each year. That’s equal to roughly 2 billion candy bars — and would weigh more than the aircraft carrier the USS Midway.
Citing those troubling statistics, 300 of the nation’s retired military leaders are joining together to call on the federal government to introduce strong nutritional standards for snack food and beverages sold in school.
Ret. Gen. Richard Myers, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared alongside fellow military personnel and staffers from the nonprofit group Mission: Readiness on Tuesday at the National Press Club in Washington to unveil the report Still Too Fat to Fight. A follow-up to the 2010 report Too Fat to Fight, the report documents how unhealthy chips, candy bars, sodas and other snacks being sold in our nation’s schools are driving the childhood obesity epidemic.
“We’re not picking on our schools, but the fact of the matter is many of our children consume about 40 to 50 percent of their calories in school, each and every day,” said Ret. Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, who appeared at the press conference. “So it’s an area we can focus on.”
Military leaders at the event praised the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for establishing nutritional guidelines for school meals, which are now being implemented in schools across the country. But they said that the widespread availability of unhealthy food and beverages sold outside those meals — commonly called competitive foods — also must be addressed.
The leaders pointed to data showing that when junk food is taken out of schools, the health of students improves. For example, when New York City stopped selling unhealthy products on its school campuses and took other steps to prevent obesity, the city saw a 5.5 percent district-wide drop in obesity rates among students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
“Stopping the routine selling of junk food at schools reinforces the message to children that they need to adopt healthier eating and exercise habits that hopefully will last a lifetime for them,” Myers said. “We cannot succeed in teaching our children to eat healthier foods while selling 400 billion empty calories of junk food in our schools every year.”
The military has a long history of partnering with other government agencies to improve school food, Seip noted. The Department of Defense supported the launch of the school lunch program in the 1940s because many of its recruits were too underfed and malnourished to join military service.
These days, too many recruits and even active service members consume food filled with too many empty calories, and it’s having an effect on military operations, Seip added. Roughly 25 percent of young adults ages 17 to 24 are too overweight to qualify for military service, and the Department of Defense spends $1 billion each year on medical care for weight-related health problems.
In response, the department has launched a number of programs designed to improve its nutritional policies and environments, said Charles Milam, the acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for Military Community and Family Policy. For example, the military already has taken action to improve the food it serves in its schools, dining facilities and vending machines.
But Milam added that reversing childhood obesity requires a holistic approach which includes action in military and civilian settings and with private and public partnerships. “We cannot do this alone,” he said.
The report received significant news coverage after its release and positive feedback from those in the childhood obesity movement, including PreventObesity.net Leader James Marks.
“The widespread availability of junk food in our schools is a serious problem. It undermines the progress schools are making to offer healthier lunches and contributes to an epidemic that threatens our national health care system, economy, and security,” said Marks, who serves as director of the Health Group for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “Replacing the unhealthy snacks schools sell in vending machines, à la carte lines, and other venues with more nutritious options will help ensure a healthier diet for tens of millions of students. That’s why stronger standards for all school foods are so critically important.”
Click here to read the full Still Too Fat to Fight report.
Editor’s Note: PreventObesity.net is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.