Farm Bill Will Help Address Military Recruitment Crisis
Every five years, Congress works on legislation to set agriculture, forestry, and conservation policy, commonly known as the Farm Bill. Despite what its name might suggest, most of the Farm Bill, 80%, is dedicated to nutrition programs rather than strictly farming issues. Many of these programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), are critical to the wellbeing of millions of Americans and to our national security.
For our nation to have a strong defense, we need healthy, fit young people able and willing to volunteer to join our armed services. Unfortunately, the pool of Americans eligible for service is shrinking. Last year, the Department of Defense released data indicating that 77% of young people aged 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service, a significant increase from the 71% figure reported in 2017. This has contributed to a military recruiting crisis experienced by nearly every branch of our armed forces.
As a member of Mission: Readiness, an organization of over 800 retired admirals and generals from across the country, I am personally concerned about this crisis. We need to support evidence-based, bipartisan policies, and quickly, if we are to address the root causes that lead to this alarming ineligibility figure.
Childhood obesity stands as the primary medical reason for military service disqualification. Nationally, roughly one in six children suffer from obesity, and Pennsylvania ranks around average, with 16% of our youth aged 10-17 having obesity. These rates have risen in recent years and may continue to rise if we do not act.
Obesity often stems from malnutrition, which is intrinsically tied to food insecurity. Low-income families and those living in “food deserts” have limited access to the fresh, nutritious foods that children need to grow up healthy. These families with low incomes often must rely on cheap food options that are high in calories but low in nutritional value, further contributing to the obesity epidemic. This is reflected in the disparity in obesity rates between children from the highest income group in the U.S., 9.2%, and those in the lowest, 24.7%.
Enter the Farm Bill. The nutrition programs included in the Farm Bill are instrumental in helping close this nutrition gap by offering better food options and instilling healthy habits in our youngest Americans. The Farm Bill includes two programs, SNAP and SNAP-Ed, that have proven successful in reaching these goals. In Pennsylvania alone, SNAP assists nearly 2 million citizens in getting access to the healthy food they need, and research has shown that these families have better overall dietary quality, as measured by the USDA Healthy Eating Index.
Another Farm Bill program crucial to both the health of our children and strength of our national security is GusNIP, which supports local efforts that provide incentives for the purchase of fruits and vegetables for those participating in SNAP. Strengthening these healthy food incentives, such as “Double Up Food Bucks” programs, will help more families enrolled in SNAP get access to nutrient-dense, healthy foods. In fact, a comprehensive national evaluation of GusNIP highlighted that participants in nutrition-incentive programs consume more fruits and vegetables than the average American.
While critical for helping solve the military recruiting crisis, investing in programs like SNAP and GusNIP is necessary in any case, as it will help young people across the board. Access to nutritious food has been shown to reduce obesity rates, and children who eat healthier also have more energy to excel in school and stay away from unhealthy habits that create roadblocks to future success. By funding these programs, we can help prepare children for a successful future.
My experience as a military leader has taught me the value of using the best tools at our disposal to keep our nation safe. At Mission: Readiness, we say that “Food insecurity is a matter of national security.” If these programs do not receive the funding they need through the Farm Bill, we risk leaving the most vulnerable Americans at risk. We need to let our elected leaders know, in Pennsylvania and beyond, that these programs should be safeguarded, strengthened, and expanded to fortify our national defense and ensure the best foundation for future generations.