More than a half-century ago, President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in large part to protect our national security. By combating malnutrition, the act was seen as a vital tool to ensure that students got the nutrition they needed to stay healthy and fit enough to be eligible to join the military as adults.
Our country is now waking up to another serious health crisis that has left many military leaders concerned about the future strength of our armed forces. The crisis this time is obesity. Over the last 30 years child obesity rates in this country have tripled, due to too many high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and not enough exercise.
The impact of these alarming statistics on our military is clear. A recent study by Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan group of retired generals and admirals, reported that an estimated one in four young adults is too overweight to enlist in the military. As a result of the obesity epidemic, military service is out of reach for millions of otherwise qualified young Americans.
From a national security perspective, obesity has become so serious that I have joined more than 100 retired generals and admirals who are members of Mission: Readiness in asking Congress to pass strong school nutrition legislation to help fight the epidemic and to expand the pool of young men and women qualified for military service.
Earlier this year, the Senate responded by unanimously passing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (S. 3307). This bipartisan bill will combat both obesity and hunger by ensuring that the food provided to kids in schools is healthy and by supporting healthy eating and exercise habits. These critical changes are fully paid for and will have no impact on the deficit. In order for the president to sign the bill, however, the House of Representatives needs to take action before Congress adjourns at the end of the year and all pending legislation dies.
The impact on Florida's children if the House does not approve the Senate-passed child nutrition bill is serious. Florida schools would lose an estimated $15.5 million in reimbursement funds for improvements in lunches next year, negatively impacting 1.5 million children in our state.
Given that children consume up to 40 percent of their daily calories at school, the food they are served there has a significant impact on their health. Currently, one-third of Florida's school-aged children are overweight and obese, a number that will only increase if schools cannot afford to provide the nutritious food needed to keep them healthy.
This commonsense legislation has strong bipartisan support from members of Congress as well as health, nutrition and antihunger organizations and food and beverage companies. It is one of only a handful of priorities Congress is likely to consider when it returns to work next week.
So today, as we honor the service of our nation's brave veterans, we must also consider the future of our military. Congress has a unique opportunity to improve the health of more than 30 million children across the country who depend on the National School Lunch Program and ensure that military service is within reach for those who want to defend our nation in the future.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Don Infante lives in Clearwater and serves on the Executive Advisory Council of Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan nonprofit group of retired military leaders.