Retired federal, military executives take on hunger caused by school closures

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School’s out. That, plus the inability of schools to host gatherings, means children across the country don’t have access this summer to school lunches. Many will go hungry. To help, a group of retired federal and military executives gathered under a Council for a Strong America unit called Mission Readiness. The Mission Readiness unit has started a program called Bridging the Summer Meals Gap. For more, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to retired Army Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: General Frost, good to have you on.

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: Thanks Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: First of all, tell us about mission readiness. This is part of a larger group called Council for a Strong America, but it’s all retired military?

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: It is. So Mission Readiness is a subgroup of Council for a Strong America — and our charter really is to is to educate America, is to educate policymakers, Congress, etc. on the issues that quite frankly are detracting from the ability for our military to be ready to support and defend the nation. It could be social, economic, or other issues that are out there and trends that we see that kind of put that in jeopardy in the long run.

Tom Temin: Alright. So how does that translate down to school lunches?

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: Yeah, well, you know, ironically back in 1945, when we were recruiting for World War II, about 40% of recruits were rejected due to reasons of poor nutrition. And as a result, what Congress did is they established the National School Lunch Program the following year, something that I think we kind of take for granted, understand but don’t understand where it came from or the cause for why we have this program. And so what we’re finding out today is, we published this report, as we look at is bridging the summer food gap. As the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, is looking at nutritional standards for school lunches across the nation, we’re kind of looking at this through the lens of the summer. How do you feed children across America through the summer? And one in seven children that take advantage of the National School Lunch Program do not have access to those meals in the summer. And so why does this matter? It matters because declining nutrition. A lot of kids across the nation, up to 19% now are malnutritioned, and it’s probably going to get up to 25% with the recent pandemic, COVID. And why does that matter to us in Mission Readiness and Council for a Strong America because it has an impact on our military, and the ability for the military to support and defend the nation in the long run. How so? Seven out of ten young Americans in the recruitable population aged 17 to 24 cannot qualify to serve in the United States military. And that’s for various reasons, physical reasons, mental reasons and standards based reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is physical. Inability because they live in food swamps or food deserts, they’re obese or they’re malnutritioned and they can’t even qualify physically to serve in the United States military. And as you look in the long run, you need to have a military that’s fit, ready to fight and ready to defend this nation.

Tom Temin: Got it. Alright so tell us about the Bridging the Summer Meals Gap. How does that program help with this fact that the kids can’t get the food during the summer?

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: So we’re trying to you really ask policymakers and have Congress etc. take a look at the program that is currently in place by the USDA and look at expanding it or changing it instead of going out pushing out more food, hamburgers and french fries, etc. And what we need to do is we need to do things like find solutions to increase the availability of training and technical assistance for meal preparers so that they’re appealing to kids and utilize available foods rather than relaxing existing nutritional standards. Options for innovative approaches for serving meals, food delivery, and maybe even expanding the summer electronic benefit transfer program, or summer EBT program, for those that can’t have access, but then can get funds transfered so they can get those types of foods, I think, other innovative programs that we should explore our mobile food dissemination sites, assistance in addressing the financial strain on those low income families over the summer, and developing private community food delivery options. I think that’s if we look at this through the lens of COVID and the pandemic the last few months and schools have had to really think about and communities had to think about, how do we get food and distribute them out to folks that just can’t get to centralized locations or aren’t at school getting lunches? And so there’s been a lot of great initiatives that have been undertaken in these last few months. We need to take advantage of those, codify those, put those into policy, resource them I think for the summer and not just the summer, but maybe you know, in perpetuity, to really get after this malnutrition problem, hese food swamps and food deserts that are out there in America.

Tom Temin: And there are food banks all over the country. In fact, right now, it’s the Feds Feed Families food drive program going on right now nationally across the current federal workforce. Are you in touch with those distribution media, I guess you could call them for food that exists in so many communities that could possibly help get the food into the hands of the kids that are kind of stuck all summer? And as you point out, with COVID-19, even if you wanted to bring them all to the school cafeterias you couldn’t?

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: It’s a great question and a good point. So we are actually in partnership with Feeding America. So we’re in touch with them and looking and partnering with them to both find the resources that you talked about. Partner with some of those organizations and also, you know, petition policymakers and resources out there and say, hey we’re in team with them, they see the broader problem across America, they understand the impact not just to America, but also the military. So we’re exactly doing that — we’re continuing to explore how we can leverage those partnerships and leverage that momentum right now that is occurring with food dissemination with nutrition problems out there in America. So that’s a great question.

Tom Temin: And those in the Mission Readiness group there, do you visit with members of Congress? Do you talk to Agriculture officials? I mean, how do you get something, that’s a huge program that has many constituencies — but getting a program like that to move one inch is a major effort.

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: It is. Welcome to Washington DC, right? So you’re exactly right. One of the things we need to do is do what I’m doing right now, which is talk to you and try and educate citizens of the nation and those who are in the Beltway to understand the problems. We are also sending this report to Congress, we’re talking with the USDA and other agencies that have an impact on this with other partners that are out there trying to tackle the same problem, maybe from a different angle, like Feeding America. So all of those things are happening, lots of different points of entry to try and kind of surround this problem, educate those that are in a position to make decisions and those that are in a position to resource it. And really, again, I think it’s as much as educating the United States of America, and not just that, to know that there is a downstream effect that. Hey we in the United States military and those who are retired, you think well what’s your connection to food and Feeding America? Well, our connection is we get the end product. We get that end product and as the former, I was in charge of all initial entry training for the United States Army, you know, basically transforming 125,000 young American citizens into fit discipline and value based United States Army soldiers. I watched the impact and the inability of a lot of what I would call young Americans, young kids come in, and you can’t just transform somebody in 10 weeks and have them run off the the weight that they have from being obese, it just doesn’t work. Because of nutrition, we were seeing femoral neck snaps, stress fractures, you know, the muscular skeletal impacts of being that obese and having that lack of nutrition for so long, had an immediate impact. It was causing medical injuries, and in 10 weeks, you cannot through basic training, you just can’t create a soldier and run off that way. And so we’ve seen this kind of deterioration over years and years, decades, of the young American who’s coming into the to the military and less and less are qualified, and those that even get in gate are still having problems based on just decades of malnutrition.

Tom Temin: Sure. And this being Washington, do you have any sense of a price tag on what it would get to say one out of seven children a meal a day for the summer months?

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: No unfortunately I don’t have a sense for the price tag. But I do know this, the opportunity cost of not doing this will be far greater. Just to give you a sense, I know that in the United States Army every single year we basically spend almost half a billion dollars based on medical injuries and musculoskeletal problems. And those are result of several things. You can trace those back to a lot of different factors. You can trace it back to physical fitness standards, which are changing through their holistic health and fitness program, and they have a new fitness test. You can trace it back to just that the tough, rough nature of the job and people getting hurt. But I know that there is a percentage of that that you can trace to this problem of obesity, this problem of lack of nutrition or non nutritious meals and the way that they’ve grown up, abuse. And not just that what’s out there culturally, you know, our healthy eating choices, etc. And so if you think about that cost, and then just for the military and you looked at across America, can we afford not to have healthy kids? What will be the long term health costs, medical costs, Medicare costs, etc, if we don’t do something now? Again, I think you really have to look at this through the lens of the long fight and not look at the short term cost or let those sway you so much.

Tom Temin: Retired Army Major General Malcolm Frost of the Council for a Strong America’s Mission Readiness unit. Thanks so much for joining me.

Maj. Gen. Malcolm Frost: Thank you very much, Tom. I really appreciate it. Thanks for helping us get out the word.

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