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Are America's kids too fat to fight?

WASHINGTON -- With 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 too overweight or obese to qualify for the U.S. military, Congress should use the reauthorization of the child nutrition programs this year to ban junk foods in the schools and provide President Obama's request for an additional $1 billion per year to improve school meals, a group of senior retired military officers said at a news conference April 20.

"Schools are a critical place to begin to address the obesity issue. We can't wait until they reach enlistment age," said retired Rear Adm. James Barnett Jr., a member of a group called Mission: Readiness Military Leaders for Kids.

In a report titled "Too Fat to Fight," the retired military officers said food consumption, not lack of exercise, is the primary problem in weight gain.

"Although children and adults exercise less than they should, exercise patterns have not changed dramatically in recent decades while obesity patterns have. What has changed in recent years is the availability and lower prices of food products that are high in sugar, fat and salt, and the increased pressures on families' time."

Looking for direction

The report could have an influence on what the government buys for food and what parents and teachers encourage children to eat. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said 31 million children eat school lunches every day and, in addition to getting fed, "will be looking for direction on what they should eat" to perform well and develop a positive self-image. Vilsack said children were eating too many salty, sugary, fatty foods and not enough whole grains and low fat dairy products.

The retired officers said weight problems have become the No. 1 medical reason the military rejects young Americans. The military cannot recruit overweight or obese people to be soldiers because the soldiers must be fit enough to help each other in moments of danger, the report noted. But while recruiters are worried that weight problems limit the number of eligible troops, the problems do not end there, the report continued. Even with the weight restrictions on enlistees, more than 1,200 first-term enlistees are discharged each year because of weight problems before their contracts are up, wasting $50,000 per enlistee in training and leading to total costs of $60 million per year. The military spends even more money helping soldiers, their families and veterans fight obesity and the health problems associated with them. All these problems, the report added, have their origins in childhood eating and exercise habits.

Money issues

The Senate Agriculture Committee has passed a child nutrition reauthorization bill that would give USDA control over all foods sold in the schools and increase the budget for child nutrition by $4.5 billion over 10 years, but President Obama in his 2011 budget proposed a $10 billion increase over 10 years.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a former Senate Agriculture Committee chairman and longtime nutrition advocate, said he supports Obama's call for a $1 billion per year increase, but that he thinks Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has worked with Senate leadership to propose "what is in the realm of the possible."

Vilsack called the Lincoln bill "a great start," but said Congress should provide the $1 billion-per-year increase the administration wants.

Some school boards have said USDA shouldn't be given the power to ban junk foods because the schools use the revenue from those food sales to pay for sports programs. But Vilsack said that studies show that students will buy healthier foods from the vending machines and that the schools would not lose revenue.

Barnett said the schools should not use financing of sports programs as an excuse to sell junk food.

"Nothing should stand in the way of making our children healthy," he added.

The report noted that the number of states with 40 percent of young adults considered overweight or obese by the Centers for Disease Control rose from one to 39 between 1998 and 2006 and that in three states -- Kentucky, Alabama and Mississippi -- more than half of young adults are overweight.