As a father and grandfather, I often find myself thinking about the health and well-being of the next generation of Mainers. I worry that they are receiving a good education, that they will be ready to fill the competitive jobs of our future workplaces and that they are growing up with good eating and physical fitness habits.
Lately, as I learn more and more about the exploding rates of childhood obesity and its effects on lifelong health issues, good eating habits are in the forefront of my concerns.
As a retired Air Force officer and former Maine adjutant general, I also worry about the impact childhood obesity has on our nation’s military preparedness and, thus, our national security.
Obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for young adults who are denied entry into military service. In fact, earlier this month Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said “about a quarter of entry-level candidates are too overweight to either enter the military or sustain themselves through the first enlistment.”
Mission: Readiness reports that each year the military discharges 1,200 first-term enlistees before their contracts expire due to weigh problems. Each discharge costs the military $50,000 to recruit and train a replacement. That alone carries a $60 million price tag each year.
How can we begin to address this serious problem? When we consider that school-age children consume up to 40 percent of their daily calories at school, retired admirals and generals like me are joining parents and nutritionists in supporting stronger nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in our schools.
I am pleased that Congress, with the help of Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, passed a robust child nutrition reauthorization that called for not only the updating of nutrition standards for foods served in school, but also recognized the need for technical assistance and training for food service staff.
In addition, the USDA is set to provide $50 million for each of the first two years of the new school meal requirements to help state nutrition agencies implement updated standards.
I am also pleased to say that public schools here in Bangor and many other Maine communities have made great strides to improve the quality and quantity of healthful foods available to our students. This began about six years ago when sodas, candy and other food of minimal nutritional value — snacks containing less than 5 percent nutrients — were removed from vending machines, and vending machines were turned off during the school day.
Nutrikids software has been implemented in all schools so parents can log online and monitor just what their kids are buying in school cafeterias and use this information to have family discussions about good food choices.
Bangor elementary schools participate in a program designed to increase fresh fruits and vegetable consumption by their students. Cafeteria staff have participated in key training initiatives such as Gardens to Plates and Cooking from Scratch to increase their knowledge and abilities to prepare better and fresher foods.
In 2010 Maine received about $350,000 from the federal Team Nutrition Grants to provide a variety of training and technical assistance for school cafeteria staff. Last year our state received additional federal resources to help enroll more schools in the Healthier U.S. School Challenge, which can serve as another outlet for online training and technical assistance for cafeteria workers. This is a great start in what needs to be a full-fledged battle against childhood obesity.
As a member of Mission: Readiness, I look forward to working with those who represent Maine in Congress in a national effort to get junk food out of our schools.
There is no silver bullet to solving our childhood obesity crisis and we will not see results overnight. Serving healthful and better-prepared foods in our schools are steps in the right direction. Graduating healthful students is good for our families, our communities and also our national security.
Nelson Durgin is a retired U.S. Air Force major general and current Bangor city councilor.