A group of military generals and nutrition advocates from throughout Arkansas agreed Thursday during a virtual roundtable discussion that increasing food security is essential, not only to address childhood obesity, but also to bolster national security by helping more young people meet the U.S. military's health and fitness standards.
Seven out of every 10 people ages 17-24 are ineligible to join the military, retired Maj. Gen. Bill Wofford said, for a variety of reasons. Some have not earned a high school diploma or the equivalent, some have police records and some cannot pass the military's physical fitness test, often due to being overweight.
Wofford is a former adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard and a member of Mission: Readiness, an organization of nearly 800 retired admirals and generals that aims to address "the growing crisis of military ineligibility," retired Army Brigadier Gen. Gary Profit said.
Mission: Readiness is one of five organizations within the Council for a Strong America, dedicated to "protecting public safety by promoting solutions that steer kids away from crime," according to the council's website.
Profit, a former Bentonville resident, said obesity is an issue for active duty and former service members as well. The U.S. Department of Defense spends about $1.5 billion on health care related to obesity for these groups, he said.
"Active duty service members miss over 650,000 days annually to obesity-related issues, placing added strain on a force that is already stretched thin," he said.
The nutrition and environmental professionals at the roundtable agreed that healthy choices and habits start in childhood and that consistent access to healthy food is the necessary foundation.
Stephanie Walker Hynes, the nutrition director for the Little Rock School District, said she would like to see "universal meals" for schools nationwide instead of just free and reduced-price meals for students who need them. The district started distributing meals to students regardless of need when the covid-19 pandemic closed schools in 2020.
"If there was a universal meal system like in other countries, we could take that off of the plate of worry, and as we are good stewards of our tax dollars, we would just use those funds to do what's right by children who are in education and trying to graduate," Walker Hynes said.
She sees the Little Rock School District as the "largest restaurant in Arkansas," and the nutrition department distributed more than 210,000 lunches and 140,000 breakfasts in November, she said.
Taylor Gladwin, an environmental educator for Fayetteville's recycling and trash division, said schools should have "food and garden education" programs so children can see "the full-circle effect" of where their food comes from. The recycling and trash division gives compost to schools from which it collects food waste, and those schools use it in their gardens.
"When kids understand how food is grown in a healthy way and they are able to participate in that process, they grow up to be adults who make healthy food choices and who waste less food," Gladwin said.
Low-income families can receive nutritional assistance from the state via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), run by the Arkansas Department of Human Services. The program sometimes has a "negative connotation" attached to it, said Lance Whitney, the director of SNAP outreach at the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, so one of his responsibilities is to promote SNAP as a necessary "supplemental safety net" to keep children fed and their parents employed.
"[We want] to break down the stigma that it's not welfare, it's supporting your community," Whitney said. "It's supporting everything in that community from health, retail, education, [and] employment."
Wofford said the ongoing pandemic has brought to light that many families who are eligible for federal nutritional support programs are not enrolled in them, including SNAP and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
"No single nutrition program exists in a vacuum," Wofford said. "We should enact policies that support the creation and sustainment of community feeding networks, support innovations to reduce food waste in schools and markets, and change public perception of federal child nutrition programs."