The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our nation in unprecedented and profound ways. Our nation’s vulnerable children are particularly compromised. Within their communities, they have to battle an urgent problem worsened by this pandemic: food access.
Simply put, with schools closed, it is significantly more difficult for children to access the healthy foods they need. However, there are tools the federal government can utilize to help address this issue.
As a former Adjutant General of Kentucky and grandfather, I am concerned about this national issue. In particular, I’m concerned about how the COVID-19 health crisis exacerbates the difficulty many children have in receiving nutritious, balanced meals.
In my former role, I saw firsthand how vital healthy servicemembers are to military strength. Unfortunately, today, obesity is the leading medical disqualifier for prospective recruits, which undermines our national security by shrinking our recruiting pool. One key to fighting lifelong obesity—which often starts in childhood—is making sure that children avoid food insecurity and have consistent access to fresh and nutritious foods.
Food insecurity is a lack of consistent access to healthy foods. If kids don’t have affordable and nutritious meals readily available, they are far more likely to eat foods that are high-calorie and low in nutrients. Eating food of this nature in excess can lead to malnutrition, which can manifest as obesity. The numerous health problems associated with obesity can prevent people from living productive lives, including stopping them from pursuing a career in the military.
That’s why the retired admirals and generals of Mission: Readiness, a bipartisan organization of which I am a proud member, are so committed to fighting for childhood nutrition. We understand that, by ensuring kids stay healthy and fit, our national security will become stronger in the long run.
Child nutrition has long been a concern for the military. In 1946, President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law. Military leaders played a major role in encouraging this legislation, pointing out that the armed forces rejected as many as 40 percent of recruits during World War II due to malnutrition. Now, Mission: Readiness continues these efforts by advocating for policies and programs that help ensure that America’s youth are prepared to succeed in whatever field they choose.
Like child nutrition, the stability of our nation’s food supply is recognized as a key component of national security strategy. Food supply, child nutrition, and national security are interrelated. The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening these links, requiring a decisive response from Congress and the USDA.
School and summer meal programs are valiantly struggling to continue serving balanced, nutritious meals through innovative means, but they are facing budget shortfalls that threaten their ability to continue serving kids.
The federal government has a powerful tool available to combat this threat: USDA commodities. USDA purchases commodities consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy dairy and grain from American farmers and donates it to school and summer meal programs. With additional funding from Congress, USDA will increase the amount of commodity food that it purchases and donates to school and summer meal programs, to help defray the rising costs of preparing nutritious meals. This action will support our agricultural sector, reduce financial burdens on school and summer meal programs, and help more children access fresh and nutritious foods.
Emergencies like this pandemic are harrowing, but they also highlight existing problems facing every community in our nation. An impact of the COVID-19 public health crisis has been a rise in children experiencing food insecurity. Food insecurity can be diminished with increased access to fresh and nutritious food through school and summer meal programs. However, these programs are struggling to stay financially afloat amidst rising food and safe preparation costs. Congress and the USDA should work together to fund, purchase and donate additional USDA commodities to provide our country’s schoolchildren with fresh and nutritious food through school and summer meal programs—which, in turn, will strengthen our national security.
Major General (Ret.) Edward Tonini, U.S. Air Force, is the former Adjutant General of Kentucky. He is currently a member of the national security organization Mission: Readiness and lives in Louisville.