US agriculture secretary weighs in: Too many Americans too obese for military service

Posted March 14, 2013, at 8:28 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a visit to Maine on Thursday that the country’s obesity problem is becoming a national security issue, as a high number of Americans are too heavy for military service.

Vilsack delivered his message of a renewed focus on healthy lifestyles for children to a room of nearly 100 Coast Guardsmen on Thursday afternoon at the service’s South Portland station. The secretary was joined by retired Vice Adm. Richard Mayo, representing the nonprofit children advocacy group Mission: Readiness, who said that 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 are not qualified to join the military — many because they exceed service weight requirements.

Other reasons for potential enlistees to be turned down for service, Mayo said, could be criminal records or inadequate academic performance.

“Nearly one in four Americans is too overweight to enlist,” Mayo said Thursday. “Being overweight or obese is the No. 1 physical reason for [military candidates] to be denied.”

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, told Thursday afternoon’s attendees that, “It may seem strange for the secretary of agriculture to be addressing the Coast Guard.”

The audience was chosen, in part, to hammer home the message that the next generation of the military may have thinner ranks if the country can’t rally around programs promoting thinner children and teenagers.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 35.7 percent of adult Americans are considered obese. Maine ranks 25th in the country with an obesity rate of 27.8 percent. A person is defined as obese when his or her body mass index, measured by dividing an individual’s weight in kilograms by the square of his or her height in meters, exceeds 30.

Earlier in the day Thursday, Vilsack visited the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in nearby Portland.

During his visit to Maine, the secretary touted U.S. Department of Agriculture efforts to implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which seeks to upgrade school meal nutrition standards for the first time in more than 15 years.

Vilsack told the Coast Guardsmen the issue of promoting healthy lifestyles for children is close to his heart. He said he was picked on growing up because of his weight, noting that a fourth-grade teacher once told him that he couldn’t do math … because he was “fat.”

“I’ve struggled with weight my whole life,” he said. “It’s hard. There are self-image issues and confidence issues.”

In addition to mandating a reduction in junk foods distributed in schools, Vilsack said efforts are afoot — through programs such as the department’s MyPlate guidelines and website — to educate working parents about quick, inexpensive and healthy meal options. He also said the department is working with the National Football League on a campaign to encourage children to engage in physical activity for 60 minutes every day.

Vilsack said his staff is also working to target what he described as geographical “food deserts” to increase distribution of healthy foods in areas of the country where such products are limited; create incentives for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — oftentimes still called food stamps — to buy healthier foods; and to make food product and menu labeling more clear about calorie, sugar and sodium levels.

He said he chose the Portland area to trumpet these efforts because many of the same initiatives have been promoted locally.

The Portland Public Schools have garnered national recognition for their introduction of produce from local farms into cafeterias, and Mayor Michael Brennan has spearheaded an effort to raise the amount of locally produced food in the schools to 50 percent within five years.

The city’s Department of Health and Human Services has also encouraged local restaurants to post calorie counts on menus, promote hiking trails and introduce new playground fitness courses at schools.