Food Insecurity and Military Preparedness in Georgia
Rear Admiral (Ret.) Frank Ponds shares how nutrition impacts America's long-term national security
Mission: Readiness member Rear Admiral (Ret.) Frank Ponds, U.S. Navy, serves on the Task Force to help inform the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health planned for September. Admiral Ponds led an online roundtable conversation earlier this year with Georgia nutrition and food waste experts to address the acute food insecurity crisis facing Georgia
During my service as a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy, I managed challenging missions in troubled places, such as conducting anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and coordinating disaster relief in Bangladesh and later in Haiti. Those experiences and others like it repeatedly reminded me that we Americans must count our blessings.
But those blessings aren’t free. As a career military officer, I learned early and often that our defense capability is fragile and must be nurtured. We now face a shortage of potential servicemembers because malnutrition manifesting as obesity disqualifies an alarming percentage of our young people from military service.
That concern led me to become a member of Mission: Readiness. For over a decade, members of Mission: Readiness have been sounding the alarm over the fact that 71 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds across the country are ineligible to serve in the military, with excess body weight being one of the primary disqualifiers. In Georgia, it’s even worse, with 73 percent ineligible as of September of 2020.
Right now, 31 percent of Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 would not meet the military’s core eligibility requirements due to obesity. This is of huge concern to our military, because it significantly reduces the pool of potential talented recruits.
To address this crisis, we must support proven nutrition programs that provide young people with reliable access to fresh and nutritious foods, and we must also work to continuously improve those programs.
I recently discussed these issues with Georgia leaders in the fight against food insecurity. These leaders work for two major food banks, an organization that rescues food from going to waste and an organization that delivers meals to the food insecure. We all agreed that, to address this growing obesity crisis, we must support proven nutrition programs that provide young people with reliable access to fresh and nutritious foods.
One of these programs is the National School Lunch Program, which follows science-based nutrition standards to provide youth with healthy meals. Children who eat school lunches consume fewer empty calories and more fruits and vegetables than their peers who don’t eat school lunch. Participation in the National School Lunch Program is also associated with a lower body mass index. Estimates suggest that free or reduced-price school lunches can reduce the rate of obesity by at least 17 percent. During Fiscal Year 2021, over 694,000 Georgia students participated in the National School Lunch Program.
Other federal programs are crucial to addressing issues of affordability, access, and availability of fresh and nutritious foods for children. That’s why Mission: Readiness members also support programs like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
While meaningful progress has been made with these programs, COVID-19’s impact on food insecurity has brought attention to shortcomings in these and other federal nutrition programs, including problems with enrollment. And these programs haven’t been reauthorized and updated by Congress since 2010, so I urge Congress to harness the bipartisan support these programs have and get them reauthorized as soon as possible.
Increasing children’s access to fresh and nutritious foods now can not only help America recover from the pandemic, but bolster our national security in the future. I seriously hope we can take meaningful steps in that direction.