Unfortunate, but true: More than half of young adults ages 18-24 in Kentucky are overweight or obese. That's the highest percentage in the nation, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As retired Army generals and former heads of Kentucky's National Guard, we are very concerned about our state's childhood obesity rate and its potential impact on our national security.
According to recent U.S. Defense Department estimates, one in four young adults is too overweight to join the military and some who are accepted are unable to complete their training due to weight-related issues.
As a result, military service is now out of reach for millions of young Americans who otherwise might qualify. The Defense Department has told Congress that it is concerned about the impact of these issues on future recruiting.
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What can we do to combat child obesity and help expand the pool of young adults qualified for military service? School is a good place to start. Many children consume nearly half of their daily calories at school, and more than half of kids eat at least one meal served in school every day.
Despite the fact that so many kids are getting so much of their food at school, the nutrition standards for school meals haven't been updated in 15 years. The result: not enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains and too many unhealthy fats.
Last year, more than 100 retired generals and admirals who are members of the national non-profit Mission: Readiness strongly supported congressional passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law will provide additional resources to schools that meet updated nutrition standards expected to be in place within the next year.
This is a step in the right direction, but more is needed to prevent our childhood obesity crisis from becoming a national security crisis. Now more than ever, we must find a way to ensure schools have sufficient resources and equipment to prepare nutritious meals for our children.
Many schools in Kentucky — and across the country — do not have the proper kitchen equipment needed for healthier cooking methods. A recent survey of schools in Southeastern Kentucky conducted by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project and the School Nutrition Foundation found that while almost all districts reportedly use ovens, nine out of 13 also use deep-fat fryers.
The survey also found that an overwhelming majority of the responding districts —14 out of 15 — indicated that their school food-service operations lack adequate funds to repair and/or purchase the school kitchen equipment needed to prepare and serve meals that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new proposed nutrition standards.
In addition, school cafeteria workers often do not have adequate training. In the Southeastern Kentucky survey, respondents listed several examples of training most needed to prepare meals that are accepted by students and meet new standards. Among the training categories mentioned were food safety, healthier food preparation, cooking and time management.
Recently, at a child-nutrition news conference hosted by state Sen. Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) at Manchester Elementary School in Clay County, local school nutrition experts confirmed the need for additional resources to improve school meals. In addition, a representative from Sen. Mitch McConnell's office read a letter from the senator saying he shared our concerns and had supported unanimous passage of the child nutrition bill in the Senate last year. In a meeting last month on Capitol Hill, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, whose district includes Clay County, told county school officials and members of Mission: Readiness that he, too, is concerned.
We are urging members of Congress to help schools meet the standards of the new child-nutrition law and provide additional support for kitchen equipment and training. These funds will help ensure that all of our children can lead healthy lives and that those who wish to serve their country are fit enough to do so.