Military needs students who eat healthier

No matter where our travels took us during our nearly six combined decades in the United States Navy, we were constantly reminded of South Carolina’s well-deserved and distinct reputation as one of the most patriotic and military-friendly states in America. Some of the most distinguished and capable men and women we served alongside called South Carolina home As retired admirals, members of the national security organization Mission: Readiness, and proud South Carolinians, we are deeply concerned that the honor of military service is now out of reach for most of our state’s young people.

Today, a staggering 74 percent of young South Carolinians are unable to join the military, primarily because they are too poorly educated, too overweight, or have a criminal record. Obesity is the leading medical reason why young Americans cannot serve, and South Carolina has the third-highest rate of childhood obesity in the nation. Our state cannot sit idly by and watch a health crisis become a national security crisis.

Last month, we joined three retired generals from the U.S. Army and Air Force in Columbia to release a new report outlining this problem and how to combat it.

While there is no single solution to solving the obesity crisis, there is one place where we can make a big difference: in schools, where students consume up to half of their daily calories. Thanks to the broad support of a variety of groups and individuals, including the more than 500 retired admirals and generals of Mission: Readiness, Congress passed legislation in 2010 to provide students access to healthier school meals and snacks in school. School foods are no longer filled with fat, sugar and salt, and instead incorporate fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

This is also the first year in which candy and many other high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks and beverages in school vending machines and elsewhere are being replaced with healthier snacks and drinks.

While we are encouraged that most of South Carolina’s schools have taken action to provide healthy meals and snacks to students, our state has not updated its own school nutrition standards in a decade.

The urgency of our health crisis means that our standards must be regularly updated to ensure students have access to nutritious food that is consistent with the latest nutrition science.

We are pleased that the S.C. Senate Education Committee recently voted overwhelmingly to pass legislation to ensure that our state standards are consistently updated.

This bill, sponsored by Sen. Katrina Frye Shealy, R-Lexington, would ensure that all of South Carolina’s children have access to healthy food. It also would empower parents and communities by allowing districts to establish stronger standards if they so choose.

We care deeply about the future of South Carolina and our nation.

All children in our state should grow up healthy and prepared to succeed in life at whatever they choose — regardless of whether or not they pursue military service.

We urge the South Carolina House of Representatives to take swift action on this important legislation when it returns next year.

When it comes to the health of our children and our future military readiness, retreat is not an option.

Robert E. Besal of Charleston and Harry T. Rittenour of Boiling Springs are retired U.S. Navy rear admirals.