Report highlights Hawai‘i obesity

HONOLULU — A group of retired military leaders concerned about young people nationwide being too fat to join the armed services is focusing on Hawai‘i’s obesity rates and want to see healthier meals served in schools.

Forty-two percent of young people in Hawai‘i ages 17 to 24 were overweight and a vast majority of them wouldn’t be allowed to join the military, according to a report expected to be released Wednesday by Mission: Readiness, a group of more than 200 retired generals, admirals and other senior military leaders.

The group drew attention last when it released a national report last year titled, “Too Fat to Fight,” claiming overweight children are a threat to national security. Similar state-specific reports have been released in Kentucky, where 51 percent of young people were overweight, and in Georgia, where that figure was 44 percent. The focus is now on Hawai‘i because of the large military population here, said Mike Kiernan, the group’s spokesman.

“There’s a large military presence where this message really resonates with the citizens of Hawai‘i,” he said. The group hopes that by highlighting state-specific obesity data, members of Congress will ensure schools get enough equipment and training for cafeterias to provide healthier food.

The Hawai‘i report, which relies on 2007 data from the Centers for Disease Control, did not examine the food served to schoolchildren. “By any measure — the military’s or various CDC surveys — it is beyond question that too many young people in Hawai‘i are overweight or obese,” the report said.

“We’re not picking on the children of Hawai‘i,” said retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Norman Seip of Alexandria, Va. “They’re not unique.”

The group is concerned that 75 percent of young Americans can’t join the military because they lack a high school diploma, have a criminal record or a medical issue, with the main medical issue being obesity. In highlighting that problem, the group has tackled early childhood education after seeing that young people couldn’t answer basic entrance exams to enter the service. They’re also targeting physical education in schools in effort to make young people more fit.

Seip said he recently met with U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawai‘i, with that hopes that his position as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee can influence funding for child nutrition programs.

Glenna Owens, director of the school food services branch for the Hawai‘i Department of Education, said obesity can’t be blamed on school food alone. But she said the retired military leaders can possibly be influential in lobbying for higher federal reimbursements rates, which will help schools serve healthier meals.

Starting last month, Hawai‘i schools made it a goal to serve 15 entrees cooked from scratch in a 25-day cycle. Cooking staff are also going to take nutrition classes through a partnership with Kapiolani Community College, Owens said. Those are the kinds of efforts the retired military leaders want to see nationwide.

“At the end of the day, we want the largest, eligible pool of young men and women out there,” Seip said, adding that healthier potential recruits are beneficial regardless of whether they decide to join the military. “We need quality, sustained investments in our next generation of children.”

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