Retired Military Leaders Tell Congress: "Retreat is Not an Option" on Healthy School Foods

    • September 17, 2014
Military soldier soluting the flag.

Soldiers helping to serve children a Thanksgiving-themed lunch in Loma Linda, New Mexico.

Washington, D.C.—Armed with a new report documenting the staggering impact of obesity on America’s military, more than 450 retired admirals and generals today urged Congress to not backtrack on or delay updated nutrition standards for foods and beverages served and sold in schools. The healthier meals standards—put in place following the enactment of the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010—have been implemented successfully by more than 90 percent of school districts nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The report, “Retreat Is Not an Option,” was released today by Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan national security organization calling for smart investments in America’s children. It includes new and previously unreported state-by-state data from the Department of Defense showing the number of young adults who are likely to be ineligible to join the military. More than 70 percent are ineligible in many states.

The report also notes obesity has become the leading medical reason why more than 70 percent of young adults nationwide cannot qualify for military service, and spotlights its negative impact on active duty personnel as well. Key statistics include:

  • Obesity rates among active duty personnel rose 61 percent between 2002 and 2011.
  • Twelve percent of active duty service members are obese.
  • The military spends more than $1.5 billion annually treating obesity-related health conditions and replacing those discharged because they are unfit.
  • More than 1 in 4 young adults ages 17 to 24 are too heavy to serve in the military.
  • One study of more than 2,000 men in a U.S. Army light-infantry brigade in Afghanistan found 14 percent were obese. The overweight and slower runners in the brigade were 1.5 times more likely to be injured than their healthier and fitter counterparts.

Mission: Readiness has been a leading voice in the effort to improve school nutrition. In 2010, its members released “Too Fat to Fight,” the landmark report that revealed the number of young Americans too heavy to join the military and called for passage of what became the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. A 2010 follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” was released with Gen. Richard Myers, United States Air Force (Ret.), a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In June 2014, Gen. Richard Hawley, United States Air Force (Ret.) testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee on the connection between child nutrition programs and our national security.

With “Retreat Is Not an Option,” the organization continues its fight to protect the updated school nutrition standards for students, many of whom consume as much as 50 percent of their daily calories at school. The report also describes significant measures the military is taking to address the rising rates of obesity within its own ranks.

"We need to protect kids’ health from day one, and we have to do this now!” said Rear Adm. Casey W. Coane, United States Navy, (Ret.). “The military is doing everything in our power to address obesity among our service members—from nutrition programs that go back to square one to teach people how to eat healthily, to specially-fitted shoes for every Navy recruit in basic training and specially built running tracks to reduce injuries.”

“Taxpayers foot the bill for both school nutrition and the military, so it makes no sense to subsidize meals filled with salt, sugar and fat while children are growing up and then pay so much more to treat the resulting health problems for those who serve our nation," Admiral Coane added. "How can we expect young people to serve and protect their country—in whatever profession they choose—if we don’t first serve and protect them at school?”

“Retreat Is Not an Option” comes on the heels of recent polling and research showing significant national support for healthier meals:

  • A poll released last week by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the American Heart Association found that 72 percent of parents nationwide favor updated nutrition standards for school meals and school snacks, while 91 percent favor requiring schools to serve fruits or vegetables with every meal.
  • The first national studies examining students’ reactions to the healthier meals, released in July by Bridging the Gap, found widespread student acceptance across all grade levels, according to school administrators.
  • A Harvard University study found that plate waste (food thrown away) decreased when the updated nutrition standards were implemented in a large school district. The study also found that, post-implementation, children’s fruit selection increased by 23 percent and vegetable consumption rose by 16 percent.

Recent efforts to weaken or delay implementation of the standards fostered a blunt response from the retired military leaders.

“Look, plenty of students don’t like algebra. Does that mean we stop teaching math? Of course not,” said Maj. Gen. D. Allen Youngman, United States Army (Ret.). “Change can be hard, but if we want kids to grow up fit and healthy, it’s just plain common sense to serve nutritious meals in schools.”

“Congress showed bipartisan leadership when it voted overwhelmingly to improve school nutrition in 2010,” said Maj. Gen. Don C. Morrow, United States Army (Ret.). “Nearly four years later, we know that this great success story is transforming our nation’s schools. That’s why we have a simple message for Congress: when we are this close to victory, retreat is not an option.”

“Retreat Is Not an Option” was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For more than 40 years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has worked to improve the health and health care of all Americans. We are striving to build a national Culture of Health that will enable all Americans to live longer, healthier lives now and for generations to come. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

Media Contacts

Melissa Blair

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (609) 627-5937

Additional Media Contact: Chris Beakey

Mission: Readiness (302) 448-0253

David Carrier

(202) 464-5362