- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Senior military leaders from North Dakota said Thursday that federal nutrition standards for schools should not be watered down or eliminated because they are helping to curb an obesity epidemic that is hurting the recruitment of new soldiers.

Retired Gens. Michael Haugen, Keith Bjerke, Jerald Engelman and Robert Schulte said during a news conference at the Fargo Air Museum that the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act may not be perfect, but it should be reauthorized without attempts to weaken or roll back guidelines.

“Unfortunatley, there are a few misguided efforts that are trying to eliminate these good standards,” Bjerke said. “We think that’s not correct.”

The generals cite a 2014 Department of Defense study on the number Americans ages 17-24 that are not eligible for the military, with the three leading causes being obesity, poor education and crime or drug use. It shows that 73 percent of residents in North Dakota and South Dakota would not make the grade. Only eight states have a higher percentage.

The nutrition guidelines, which are part of the farm bill, prompted dramatic changes in school cafeteria food. Cookies, fruit-flavored candies, doughnuts, chocolate bars and soda pop have been replaced by peanuts, low-fat tortilla chips, granola bars, fruit cups and zero-calorie flavored water. Fargo public schools have knocked out French fries in favor of sweet potato sticks.

Some smaller districts in the state have complained they can’t afford to buy kitchen equipment to meet the standards and some students don’t like the food and are throwing it out.

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said she has introduced a measure that would provide money for schools to buy equipment, and Sen. John Hoeven said he has introduced a provision that would give districts flexibility to meet the standards.

The generals would accept any measures that don’t kill the program.

“We should continue to support any school that is having a tougher time,” Bjerke said. “But like the armed forces, we should not stop when the going gets tough.”

Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer said it’s fine to advocate for good nutrition, but he doesn’t think it’s appropriate to have public policy that limits choices for parents and school districts.

“There are other countries that raise some soldiers from birth. We don’t,” Cramer said. “I applaud the generals for their effort but I don’t think school nutrition is the problem for military recruitment. I think it’s much broader than that.”

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