Every five years, Congress takes up legislation to set agricultural, forestry, and conservation policy, known as the Farm Bill. In name, it sounds like a strictly agricultural piece of legislation. In actuality, 80 percent of this landmark legislation is centered around nutrition, specifically the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
It is vital that this program and others like it receive funding, but it may surprise you to hear our thoughts on why.
Recently, the Department of Defense released data showing that 77 percent of youth aged 17-24 are ineligible for military service due to a variety of factors, including obesity, academic issues, or a history of crime or drug abuse. This is a sharp increase from the 71 percent figure released in 2017. At a time when almost every branch of the military is facing a steep recruiting crisis, this should alarm all Americans. Our national security is at risk from an internal threat. At Mission: Readiness, an organization of over 800 retired generals and admirals nationwide, we believe it is our duty to address the root causes that lead to this alarming ineligibility figure through evidence-based, bipartisan policies.
The Farm Bill includes such policies, and plays an important role in decreasing that 77 percent figure. Childhood obesity is the largest single medical reason for ineligibility, and this will continue to rise without adequate support and intervention, posing a significant challenge for military readiness. It will continue to increase the difficulty of maintaining the ranks of our all-volunteer force and present risks for soldiers after they enter the service.
Obesity is often a manifestation of malnutrition, which is closely tied to food insecurity. For children experiencing food insecurity, the food available is often cheap, high-calorie, and low in nutrients while fresh, nutritious foods are scarce or unaffordable. Programs like SNAP are one step toward addressing this nutrient gap and establishing healthier habits with our youngest Americans. Any parent understands the importance of encouraging their children to eat their fruits and vegetables, but they cannot do this without access to those foods.
Our experiences as leaders within the military emphasized the importance of preparedness--planning ahead of time to know your action steps in the event of a crisis. The crisis in front of us is one that requires addressing from the ground up, to invest in our children and their well-being in order to reduce the growing percentage of youth who would not have military service as an option for their future. SNAP makes more nutritious foods accessible, and SNAP-Ed educates SNAP participants on the importance of healthy food choices and physical activity. These tools allow families to provide healthier options for their children, which fosters lifelong healthy habits. A quote from Frederick Douglass sums this up easily; "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
At Mission: Readiness, you will hear us say, "Food insecurity is a matter of national security." Without programs like SNAP and legislation like the Farm Bill, we are leaving some of the most vulnerable Americans at risk. We all should call on our elected leaders to protect these programs and strengthen our national security in the process.
William D. Wofford is a retired U.S. Army major general and former Adjutant General of Arkansas. Thomas G. Cutler is a retired U.S. Air Force major general and former Adjutant General of Michigan. Both are members of Mission: Readiness.