Coast Guard admirals: Obesity is national security concern
New London — President Donald Trump wants to expand the military by nearly 26,000 troops next year alone. But about 70 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 are not eligible for military service due to obesity, a criminal record or lack of a high school diploma or GED.
That spurred a visit to New London on Wednesday by three retired Coast Guard admirals to see firsthand the transformation of the school lunch program in the city's schools, and lead a discussion at the Coast Guard Academy about the national security implications of obesity.
"This is a very demanding profession," retired Vice Adm. Manson Brown said. "It really stresses and strains the human body, not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. Individual fitness really contributes or detracts from team readiness, and obviously team readiness either leads to mission success or failure."
Brown, along with Adm. James Loy and Rear Adm. Mary Landry, were visiting the city as part of their involvement in the nonpartisan group Mission: Readiness, made up of more than 700 retired military officers who promote the concept of "citizen readiness."
The admirals' visit was centered on healthy eating, something New London schools know about.
For almost two years now, something of a food revolution has been taking place in school cafeterias in New London under Chef Daniel Giusti, who left acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Noma to start Brigaid, a program to put chefs in schools with the promise of creating an environment that develops healthy habits. Giusti, who participated in the panel discussion, said Wednesday that the program is expanding to New York public schools, the second largest provider of food in the U.S., after the military.
"The important thing is understanding how critical it is, when you look at that 70 percent statistic, how much we have to impart issues of nutrition and physical fitness very early," Landry said.
Nearly one in three young Americans is too overweight to serve in the military, and many children get up to half of their daily calories at school.
"Our kids spend most of waking time in school, so there's a unique opportunity to touch them in healthy ways," Brown said.
Earlier in the day, the admirals toured Winthrop STEM Elementary Magnet School, and ate lunch — they each chose pasta Bolognese — in the school's cafeteria.
It took a little while for the students to adjust to the new food options, Brigaid regional chef Ryan Kennedy said, but now they eat kale regularly. They're still fickle about eating beans, though. In some cases, dishes have needed some rebranding; for example, the students didn't take to jerk chicken, so it was renamed Caribbean chicken, he said.
All the students have iPads, from which they can select what they want to eat for lunch. They can see pictures on their iPads of what's being served each day, which helps convince them to try new foods, Principal Michele Han said.
"This is done on a very tight budget," Landry noted in the panel discussion. "... so what I would impress on school leaders: Don't think this is a huge cost. It just takes a little creativity, a little coordination and a little effort, and you can do it within your budget guidelines."
So why bring this message to New London? The idea is to get buy-in from local officials, but also the students.
"We want to be dropping the pebble in the pond so that the City Council gets it, the school board gets in, and the kids get it," Loy said. "At the end of the day, the most important audience for us is the kids so they're forming their habits that are going to serve them so well for the rest of their lives."
In Washington, the admirals and other members of Mission: Readiness can leverage their connections and status as retired military officers to advocate for these issues among political and military leaders, meet with the various congressional committees who help shape policy on these issues, and testify on Capitol Hill.
As Loy put it, "Having a history of time at DHS (the Department of Homeland Security), people will pick up the phone. They'll take my call."