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Obesity a national security issue, experts agree

America's weight problems threaten future military strength, retired Navy rear admiral says.

Improving school lunches and nutrition education are a key way to get Americans healthy enough to join the military, and a badly divided Congress might be amenable to cooperating on this one issue, obesity policy experts said said Wednesday.

The nation’s health is “a train wreck that is occurring in front of our eyes," said James Barnett, a retired Navy rear admiral who is now at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and on the executive advisory council for Mission:Readiness.

“Obesity and our future military strength are linked,” Barnett said at a National Journal Live event. Three-quarters of Americans of military age are not qualified to join the military, largely because they are too overweight, Barnett said.

School food programs are a key way to keep kids healthy, since kids can get half their calories at school every day, Barnett said. He said schools need support -- financial and policy backing -- to provide nutrition education and remove junk food from school vending machines and lunches.

“If they are given the resources, the school nutritionists are so excited about these programs,” Barnett said. “We want to make sure we have as much impact as possible…and we can have a big impact there.”

Tracy Fox, the president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants, said First Lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to reduce childhood obesity were a great first step, but more work was needed.

“It’s time now to certainly applaud her efforts and support, but we really need to kind of take it to the next level. The prevention fund that was part of the [Affordable Care Act] is being nipped at and used for other things not related to prevention funding,” Fox said. “We have very significant threats.”

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