Two Epidemics Are Creating a National Security Crisis: COVID-19 and Obesity

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An airman checks his status with a scale and a tape measure.
An airman checks his status with a scale and a tape measure. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Michael J. Veloz)

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Michael S. Hall is the former adjutant general of New York and a member of Mission: Readiness.

In a challenging time for our nation, I'm worried about the long-term national security implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The connection between national security and the pandemic may not be readily apparent. We all see and experience the immediate impacts of this terrible health emergency in our everyday lives. But there are even more far-reaching effects that could threaten our nation's military preparedness for years to come.

The root cause of that threat? Food insecurity among our country's young people.

Food insecurity can lead to malnutrition created when people lack reliable access to nutritious foods. Malnutrition can take many forms, one of which is obesity -- currently a top medical disqualifier for military recruits.

In all, a jaw-dropping 71 percent of young Americans can't qualify for military service, even if they wish to serve. The national security nonprofit Mission: Readiness, of which I am a member, has been sounding the alarm about this serious problem for more than a decade.

The bad news doesn't end there, unfortunately. Even many recruits who can meet enough basic benchmarks to enlist struggle after doing so. A few weeks of boot camp aren't enough to overcome years of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. That's why more than five percent of our military is still unfit for deployment even after completing basic training. That shortfall ultimately leads to our armed forces being understaffed and not achieving an optimal level of preparedness.

And the pandemic is about to make these problems even worse.

A forthcoming Mission: Readiness research report illustrates the pandemic's devastating effect on food insecurity. Evidence suggests that, due to significant, pandemic-fueled increases to the unemployment and child poverty rates, up to an additional 18 million children will experience food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

That's 25 percent of all kids in this country, and that figure represents a massive increase from 2018, when food insecurity already impacted a significant 11 million children in the United States. Food insecurity rates from April 2020 are also significantly higher than any other point with comparable data; in households with children under 18, rates have increased by an incredible 130 percent from 2018 to April 2020.

These increasing rates could have a catastrophic impact. Projected rates of food insecurity in the South are especially high, with 24 percent of Mississippi adults and 35 percent of Louisiana children expected to experience food insecurity. In Texas, estimates suggest that more than two million children could become food insecure -- the highest number in the country.

However, another recent Mission: Readiness report, entitled "Bridging the Summer Meals Gap," offers solutions to reduce food insecurity by modernizing and adapting the school and summer meal programs. In response to the pandemic, Congress temporarily allowed some school and summer meal program flexibilities to allow for food delivery, mobile food sites, packaging for pick-up, and meal availability at multiple sites to address lack of transportation when schools are closed. Coupled with incentives to purchase and use local food supplies from local farmers and producers, and increased technical assistance and training to school and summer meal program preparers to prepare fresh vegetables and fruits that appeal to kids, these innovations will help reduce food insecurity during the pandemic and well into the future.

Solutions like these are especially critical for children who live in "food deserts," where affordable, nutritious food is difficult to find, or "food swamps," where nutrition-poor food is readily available and irresistibly inexpensive. In many cases, communities find themselves struggling with food deserts and food swamps simultaneously, particularly in disadvantaged and underserved areas.

That lack of healthy food can lead directly to food insecurity and, thereby, to malnutrition manifesting as obesity. Parents and children in these areas frequently can't access the nutritious foods their families need.

That's why school and summer meals programs are so vital to our country's children -- and to our national security. By adapting and innovating these programs, we can fight food insecurity and the obesity epidemic by helping children consistently access nutritious, balanced meals year-round.

This is a distinctly pressing concern, with many school systems no longer meeting in person for the foreseeable future. We cannot allow the pandemic to rob these young people of their futures, including military service if they choose that path.

To achieve that goal, I urge Congress to take action to strengthen our efforts in the battle against food insecurity. Lawmakers should continue school and summer meal program flexibilities now, and work to pass innovative school and summer meal solutions to ensure our nation's kids have consistent access to balanced, nutritious meals throughout the year. These important steps will mitigate the food insecurity crisis and, in doing so, help preserve the health of our youth and the security of our nation.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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