With practically three-quarters of our young, enlistment-age men and women unfit for military service, Arkansans need to do more to help guide children and teens away from limiting their future career options.
We should do it for the young people. But if that's not reason enough, we should do it because our national security literally depends on it.
I recently joined with a panel of Arkansas leaders on the topic (watch the event here) to discuss what can be done. Right now, 31 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 wouldn't meet the military's core eligibility requirements due to obesity, a form of malnutrition that is often caused by food insecurity. Overall, 71 percent of those 17- to 24-year-olds across the country, and a shocking 74 percent in Arkansas, are ineligible to serve in the military for all reasons. In order to address this growing crisis, we need to attack the obesity crisis and support proven child nutrition programs.
I've worried about this problem for decades as a former senior Army officer. That's why I'm a member of Mission: Readiness, a national security organization of nearly 800 retired admirals and generals who champion evidence-based state and federal public policy solutions proven to prepare our youth for life.
We're committed to this mission, and military leaders have stood up before to make sure America's youth had proper nutrition for a healthy start in life. During World War II, the armed forces turned away at least 40 percent of rejected recruits for reasons related to poor nutrition. After the war ended, military leaders helped inspire the creation of the National School Lunch Program.
With interest in military service recently on the decline, it is that much more critical that those interested in serving are prepared to meet the standards for eligibility. The issues impacting child nutrition are broad, including state programs, school lunch programs, food waste management, and federal child nutrition programs. I recently joined 336 other retired generals and admirals in signing a letter to every member of Congress, urging that federal programs be strengthened and reauthorized soon. "Current trends," we wrote, "pose an existential threat to the future of our nation and our ability to sustain an all-volunteer force."
Part of the solution lies in getting available assistance to those who need it by making sure they're signed up. For example, only 49 percent of eligible participants were enrolled in the most recent statistics in the federal WIC program--the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides grants to states for foods, health-care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income pregnant women, and to their infants and toddlers up to age 5 who are found to be at nutritional risk. In the short term, matters have probably gotten worse, not better: During the pandemic, many families faced additional barriers when trying to access these programs.
Other steps can be taken at the state and local level. 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 raise awareness of the federal child nutrition programs.
And we need more public-private partnerships to eliminate "food deserts," which are communities with limited access to healthy food. Over a generation, the number of grocery stores in Arkansas has decreased, while corner stores and convenience stores have increased. Many of those smaller stores are not reliable sources of healthy foods. We need to enable a resurgence of grocery stores in underserved communities.
Increasing children's access to fresh, nutritious foods now will not only help America recover from the current challenge, but bolster our national security in the future. I'll keep sounding the alarm until young Americans are healthier and fit.
Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Gary Profit, a former resident of Bentonville, is a Mission: Readiness member and the former senior director of military programs for Arkansas-based Walmart.