The covid-19 pandemic's harm is as far-reaching as it is profound. But one of the most urgent problems connected to this health emergency is also one that is fundamental to human existence: food access.
Specifically, the urgency comes from the fact that many of our nation's children receive their only nutritious meals of the day in school. Now, due to this pandemic, there is no school.
In the face of that challenge, the need to modernize and adapt our school and summer meals programs has never been greater. That need matters to me not only as an American concerned about our nation's young people, but also as a retired general officer focused on our long-term national security.
When I was the Adjutant General of Arkansas, I got a firsthand look at the critical value of having healthy service members. Yet, today, obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for prospective recruits. The key to fighting childhood obesity--which often leads to lifelong obesity--is making sure that children avoid food insecurity and have access to nutritious foods.
Food insecurity occurs when people lack reliable, affordable access to healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and thereby results in malnutrition. Today, malnutrition manifests in our children as obesity, as often the only food available is cheap, high-calorie, and low in nutrients. Malnutrition prevents people from living productive lives, including stopping them from serving in the military if they so choose. Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan advocacy group consisting of retired admirals and generals, has been on the front lines of this fight for over a decade.
Military concerns over the nutrition of our nation's young people actually date back several generations, when military leaders implored Congress to act to improve the nutrition of young Americans. That dire warning came in the wake of World War II, when our armed forces had to reject as many as 40 percent of recruits due to malnutrition, leading to Congress creating the National School Lunch Program in 1946.
The covid-19 pandemic has transformed the battle against malnutrition--and not for the better. Schoolchildren are now facing perhaps the greatest risk of food insecurity in modern times.
Congress must respond today as it did almost eight decades ago. It must take action that will strengthen school and summer meals programs, both in the near-term and over the long haul.
Lawmakers should provide emergency funding to cover costs associated with making sure children can get the healthy, nutritious meals they would normally get at school. The primary challenge right now is that children lack transportation--when the school bus stops coming, the access to hot, balanced and nutritious meals stops for millions of our kids.
Congress should also help local program operators by funding technical assistance and training that will help these school and summer meal preparers navigate new covid-related constraints, including adapting to changes in food supplies.
Emergencies like this epidemic are harrowing experiences, but they also provide an opportunity to rise to the occasion. Congress can do that by adapting and modernizing the school and summer meal programs that help provide our country's schoolchildren with nutritious food--which, in turn, will strengthen our national security.
Major General (Ret.) William D. Wofford, U.S. Army, is the former Adjutant General of Arkansas, and a member of Mission: Readiness.
Editorial on 05/28/2020