US military bites into obesity crisis

Former US military leaders have identified a latent threat to the potential for a leaner, more agile fighting force: the school vending machine.

In a report out yesterday, a group of 300 retired military officers said school-age children are eating 400 billion excess calories a year – the equivalent of two billion chocolate bars – from junk food sold in such machines, as well as in snack bars and cafeterias that should be off-limits.

Sweets, chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks amount to about 130 extra calories a day, which over a student’s school years can lead to many extra pounds.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“The calories add up,” the US generals and admirals said in their report, which calls for tougher standards on the snacks schools can sell.

“While limiting the sale of junk food is not a solution by itself for the childhood obesity epidemic, it is part of the solution,” wrote the retired officers, who are part of a non-profit group called Mission: Readiness, focused on youth issues.

Military experts have long been worried that rising obesity is making it difficult to find fit recruits. But the report places new pressure on government to revamp nutritional guidelines for foods sold in US schools.

Retired air force Lieutenant-General Norman Seip, a member of the group, said: “The folks that are going to enter the military in 2025 are in school right now. So it’s up to us to ensure that when those children reach the age of between 17 and 24, they are ready or eligible to join the military.”

The number of overweight or obese children keeps rising – more than one-third of American children and teenagers are too heavy, US government statistics show. Other data shows such children are also more likely to be heavier as adults.

Margo Wootan oversees nutrition policy at the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. She said of the new report: “It’s a strong reminder of the seriousness and the extent of the obesity epidemic, showing how far-reaching it is that even the military is concerned about it.”

The US Department of Agriculture is considering new standards for so-called “competitive” foods sold outside of traditional school meals. USDA officials have said they are still working on the new rules, which were due in December. They have not said when the rules will be released.

Doctors, public health experts and consumer advocates want the USDA to update limits on calories, fat and sodium in snack foods and to restrict drinks sales to healthier options such as naturally sweetened fruit juices and low-fat or non-fat milk.

Food and beverage manufacturers have said they support efforts to revamp school nutrition guidelines, but they cite lack of exercise and other issues as part of the problem.

Only 25 per cent of young US adults qualify to enlist in the military. Among the remaining 75 per cent, more than a third have weight-related problems, Eileen Lainez, a US Defence Department spokeswoman, said, though she said the military is still meeting its recruiting goals.

It is still alarming that so many young people are too fat and future enlistees are likely to follow suit, Lt-Gen Seip said, adding: “We’re not talking a couple of pounds here, we’re talking about an average of 30lb (13.6kg).”

Lt-Gen Seip retired in 2009 after joining the air force about 30 years ago. Over those three decades, the number of obese American children has more than tripled.

Drinks sold in schools, especially sugary sodas, have been a particular concern. Three studies published last week offered the strongest evidence yet that sugary drinks play a leading role in expanding US waistlines.