Zahner: We need strong nutrition programs for Arizona children


Sadly, our national childhood obesity epidemic has become so familiar that it’s sometimes easy to forget just how damaging malnutrition is to our youth and our country’s future.

Here are some facts that should provide a reality check:

  • In Arizona, the obesity rate for children aged 10–17 is 10%, and the rate of obesity for high-schoolers is 13%; these rates portend a generation plagued with lifelong, costly health problems in our state.
  • Only 5% of Arizona’s high school students consumed the recommended daily amount of fruits, and only 1.2% consumed the recommended daily amount of vegetables as of 2017.
  • During the pandemic, participation in school lunch decreased from nearly 30 million participants nationwide per day in 2019, to 23 million in 2020, a significant decline that will contribute to higher obesity rates.
  • These figures have implications for national security: An astounding 72% of 17- to 24-year-olds in Arizona, and 71% nationwide, are ineligible to serve in the military, with excess body weight being a primary medical disqualifier.
  • This 71% ineligibility figure has led the Army to reduce its active-duty strength by 12,000 Soldiers — we simply can’t find sufficient quality recruits in a time of vastly increased international tensions.

In short, our youth don’t consume sufficient healthy, nutritious food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables.

These eating habits can lead to malnutrition, which often manifests in the U.S. as obesity. Food insecurity, or a lack of availability of nutritious food, is key to this problem, with children lacking access to such foods turning to cheaper, unhealthier options.

Mission: Readiness, a nonpartisan national security organization that I support includes more than 750 retired admirals and generals working to strengthen national security by ensuring that children stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble.

Recently, I participated on a panel of Arizona food experts and Mission: Readiness members addressing the importance of combating childhood food insecurity and malnutrition.

The round table highlighted that these issues cause young people to struggle to reach their goals in life, whether that’s military service or some other career path. Poor dietary habits that lead to childhood obesity quickly become lifelong health challenges, including heart disease, bone and joint issues, and diabetes.

Thankfully, there are several federal programs that bolster food security by helping children consistently receive healthy, nutritious meals. These programs include the National School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Service Program, which help school children receive healthy meals, the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, commonly known as “WIC.”

I shared some disturbing facts earlier. Here are some encouraging ones:

  • Research shows that SNAP reduces obesity among children and adolescents, including reducing childhood obesity by 5%.
  • Participation in WIC has been linked to better overall dietary quality, increased fruit and vegetable consumption, and reduced intake of added sugars.
  • Between 2010 and 2016, many WIC agencies across the United States saw decreased rates of obesity in children between 2 and 4 years old.
  • Research highlights that participation in the National School Lunch Program is associated with a lower body mass index, or BMI, a calculation that is a key component in the diagnosis of obesity.
  • Estimates suggest that free or reduced-price school lunches can reduce the rate of obesity by at least 17%.

All speak to strong, positive outcomes; unfortunately, barriers to accessibility and a lack of funding often limit the effectiveness or reach of these programs.

To combat food insecurity, reduce childhood obesity, and enhance long-term national security, we must ensure we recognize, prioritize, and work to improve these programs.

It is imperative that we have strong nutrition programs that can both serve the needs of Arizona’s children and ensure they can better achieve their full potential.

About the author

Lt. General Richard Zahner, U.S. Army (retired) is a member of Mission: Readiness. Learn more at: strongnation.org/missionreadiness.