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Vilsack says anti-obesity campaign needed to keep next generation competitive, country secure

WASHINGTON -- Releasing a new dietary icon that encourages Americans to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables and facing questions about a congressional plan to stop changes in the school lunch program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsa...

WASHINGTON -- Releasing a new dietary icon that encourages Americans to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables and facing questions about a congressional plan to stop changes in the school lunch program, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on June 2 seemed to up the stakes in the Obama administration's anti-obesity campaign, calling it a matter of national competitiveness and national security.

Responding at a news conference to questions about people who think the government should not be telling Americans what to eat, Vilsack said, "We are not telling people what to eat. We are giving them a guide. We are not suggesting they should never have a treat or a cookie.

"What this is about is an obesity epidemic," he said. "The costs are high."

If the United States wants to be competitive in the next generation, Vilsack said, the country needs to reduce childhood obesity and health care costs.

"Kids face incredible competition from other countries," he added.

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The obesity of young people is a national security issue because so many young people are too heavy to serve in the military, he noted.

"If we don't have enough kids who are fit, how can we have a volunteer army," Vilsack said.

He was backed up by Air Force Lt. Gen. (Retired) Norm Seip, who appeared at the news conference to say that 25 percent of Americans age 17 to 24 are too heavy for military service.

Seip is a member of Mission Readiness, a group of 250 retired admirals and generals who are campaigning to reduce childhood obesity. Seip said the members of the group consider themselves "advocates for the next generation of children."

A provision in the fiscal year 2012 House agriculture appropriations bill passed recently by the House Appropriations Committee directs USDA not to impose new school lunch guidelines that would require changes in food purchases on the grounds that the shift would increase costs. But Vilsack said, "Congress is understandably focused on fiscal (issues). With due respect to Congress, this is the right way to go."

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