Childhood obesity is a rising concern for the military, which is now turning to the agriculture industry for help |

Childhood obesity is a rising concern for the military, which is now turning to the agriculture industry for help

In 2006-11, according to the U.S. Military Processing Exam, 62,000 new recruits to the military were turned away because of their weight. The Greeley Tribune takes a look at how organizations are trying to combat this trend.
Photo Illustration by Joshua Polson | The Greeley Tribune

By the numbers: Farm to School

Farm to School in the U.S.

5,254 school districts and 42,587 schools involved — 42 percent of all surveyed

Farm to school in Colorado

64 school districts and 857 schools — 42 percent of all surveyed

21 percent of the schools not currently involved in Farm to School plan to start a local food effort soon.

$17,854,400 invested by schools into local food

85 percent of schools involved in Colorado’s Farm to School programs buy vegetables, 75 percent buy fruits, 46 percent buy milk and 34 percent buy meat or poultry.

At least 238 school gardens are growing in the state.

Farm to School in Greeley-Evans School District 6

32 schools involved in Farm to School

$874,076 invested in local food

Top five locally-sourced products: Apples, ground beef, potatoes, onions and chile peppers

Local defined as within 400 miles of Greeley

Source: 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm to School Census


Tips for getting kids interested in healthy food

Kathy Rickart, co-manager of Tigges Farm in Greeley, has found that the bigger the obesity problem, the smaller the answer. Kids enjoy food that is their size. Baby carrots, mini bell peppers — these are all more likely to get an A+ from a picky eater than a full-sized veggie.

Rickart sat on a Farm to School panel earlier this year at the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association Conference in February with an apple grower on the West Slope, who said they specifically send their littlest apples to the schools, because the kids like them better.

This year, Tigges Farm will start growing miniature bell peppers called Yum Yum peppers. They are sweet bell peppers that are designed to fit perfectly into little hands.

“If you think about it, it’s perfect for kids. It’s a candy, then,” she said. “If they’re going to choose a small bell pepper over a donut, that right there is winning the battle.”


Military weight and height requirements

Each branch of the military has maximum height and weight requirements, and depending on the branch, they may vary for men and women.

For example, in the Marine Corps, a 6-foot-tall man must weigh a minimum of 140 pounds and a maximum of 203 pounds. A 5-foot-5-inch woman in the Marines must weigh a minimum of 114 pounds and a maximum of 150 pounds.

There are also requirements for maximum body fat percentages. In the Marines, for men, it’s 18 percent and for women, it’s 26 percent.

To see these numbers for each branch, go to

To learn more about each branch of the military’s physical fitness test requirements, go to


By the numbers:

Obesity in the U.S.

In 2011-2012, the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control, 17 percent of children age 2-19 were considered obese. That’s 12.7 million children and teens.

Obesity impacts children in minority races at higher rates. In 2011-2012, 22.4 percent of Latino children and 20.2 percent of black children were considered obese, compared to 14.1 percent of white children.

More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese.

Medical costs of obesity total nearly $150 billion every year.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

When Juan Cardenas started in the Marine Corps junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Northridge High School, he wasn’t able to do a pull-up or a push-up. He used to wear a shirt that said, “I’m not fat, I’m fluffy.” That word — “Fluffy” — became his nickname around the junior ROTC hall.

Last week, Juan, 16, stood in front of his junior ROTC class and gave a presentation about nutrition. He offered tips about how to read labels, what foods are the healthiest and how the body converts calories to energy. Some of the information he presented was new even to his instructor, Maj. Stephen Kintzley.

Juan is a model of how learning about health can change the tide of a kid’s life, and now the military hopes to turn to agricultural producers to inspire more like him.

“I’ve always been a bigger kid. I wasn’t always the strongest or the fastest,” Cardenas said. “It makes me happy that I’ve been able to come so far from being the bigger kid, the slower kid, the weaker kid — and now, I’m the kid that can hold his own and even give the other kids some competition.”

“We do consider it a national security issue and one that is seriously impacting the military’s ability to recruit.”

Cardenas overcame the issues that many young Americans face. As today’s children come of age, some military officials worry they won’t be fit to fight, leaving America’s military forces at a severe disadvantage.

That’s why 600 retired generals and admirals, including U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Gary Dylewski, teamed up to form Mission Readiness, a nonpartisan group that talks about the impact obesity has on the military and works to enlist the help of community groups such as farmers to make a difference.

From 2006-11, according to the U.S. Military Processing Exam, 62,000 new recruits to the military were turned away because of their weight.

It’s bigger than most people realize, he said, but it’s one that has a solution growing by the acre.

At the Colorado Fruit & Vegetable Growers Conference in February, Dylewski admitted he was afraid for the future of the country and asked for help from the group of about 400 produce industry professionals gathered in the room. He said the agriculture community can tip the scales by making sure its products get into the hands of those who need them most. The availability of fresh and healthy food to children is a major factor in combating childhood obesity, so community partnerships, such as Farm to School, that help bolster healthy school lunches, are key pieces to fighting rising obesity rates.

“We are very concerned with childhood obesity,” Dylewski said. “We do consider it a national security issue and one that is seriously impacting the military’s ability to recruit.”

Obesity is the No. 1 medical disqualifier for new recruits, and it is one of the driving factors disqualifying more than two-thirds of young adults in the U.S. from service.

“If 71 percent of our young adults cannot serve in the military, there is something wrong,” he said. “Changing today’s culture is not going to be easy, but it is the task at hand.”

And just like the old Uncle Sam recruiting posters told citizens that America wanted you, Dylewski said the military needs the help of everyone in the ag community.

Farm to school

At Isabella Bird Community School in Denver, a group of elementary school children grew a crop of curly kale in their school garden. They picked it and took it to the school kitchen, where it was sautéed and put onto the salad bar.

At lunch, the students were told the lumpy greens were grown and harvested by their classmates, so many of the kids spooned some of the vegetable onto their plate. The majority of the kids even liked it.

That’s the power of a good Farm to School program, said Lyn Kathlene, who works with the Colorado Farm to School task force.

Farm to School programs can look different. They can mean a school sources ingredients for its school lunches locally, implements a community garden or teaches students about local produce, among other things.

“The best thing about Farm to School programs — and the research is very solid at this point — is that they are the most effective way to change kids eating habits to healthy eating habits,” Kathlene said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2015 Farm to School Census, 42 percent of Colorado’s school districts — that means 64 districts and 857 schools — are involved in some kind of Farm to School program.

One of them is Greeley-Evans School District 6. In 2011, the district rolled out a primarily scratch-cooking kitchen with as many ingredients sourced locally as possible.

Before the change, less than 20 percent of school meals were actually cooked in house, rather than pre-prepared or processed. Now more than 75 percent of the food is cooked from scratch.

Jeremy West, the district’s nutrition services director, said he spends about $4.2 million on food every year for the district’s schools, and the items he purchases include local produce, milk and meat. According to the 2015 Farm to School Census, the district spent nearly $875,000 on locally sourced products.

“Greeley-Evans is one of our superstars,” Kathlene said. “The things that they have done systematically to grow Farm to School — it’s a model for across the country.”

Incorporating more programs such as these offers a key way to impact childhood nutrition and combat childhood obesity, Kathlene said. It’s more than giving them the choice between an apple and a candy bar — it’s telling them where the apple came from and why it matters.

“While we have better school nutrition standards now than we did five years ago, it’s the act of connecting the kids to the local food system that is really making the big difference in them choosing and beginning to like healthy foods,” she said.

Working it out

Maj. Kintzley is the junior ROTC teacher at Northridge. He said he doesn’t see obesity as a huge threat at the moment, but he can see it looming larger in the future. The Marine Corps veteran said during his time in the military, he saw services deemed unnecessary and phased out because technology could do them. In the line of duty, though, the machines couldn’t make the judgment calls or do some of the things a person could, so soldiers would step in. If military personnel aren’t physically prepared for those situations, it could cause a problem, he said.

That’s something that Dylewski highlighted as well. Technology will always be one of the U.S. military’s greatest advantages, he said, but before a tank can roll, it has to have a person inside.

The military sees the impacts of obesity rates within its ranks, not just in recruits. Twelve percent of enlisted military personnel are considered obese, a large increase in the past decade.

Every year, more than 1,200 first-year enlistees are discharged from the military because of their weight. Each of them has to be replaced, and that re-training costs $50,000 per person. That means in training costs alone, the obesity epidemic is costing American taxpayers more than $60 million every year. That doesn’t include the expenses the military shells out for treating obesity-related illnesses in enlisted personnel, their dependents and veterans, which comes in at more than a $1 billion, Dylewski said.

For the recruits who make it past that first year, poor nutrition as a child and teen cause long-term health issues, especially related to bone strength. The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts saw 72 percent more medical evacuations because of stress fractures and other bone complications, Dylewski said.

“Basic training can build a lot of muscle, but strengthening bones is not as easy,” he said.

Junior ROTC isn’t a military prep program, like many think. Instead, it’s about leadership and discipline. Only a fraction of the students in the program end up enlisting.

There are students in Northridge’s junior ROTC program who are overweight, Kintzley said, but that’s never something the program leaders hold against them. If the students do hope to go on to serve, that will change. Every branch of the military has physical fitness requirements for entry, as well as maximum height, weight and body fat requirements.

Even though they may not go on to serve, Kintzley said the junior ROTC cadets go through physical training to learn discipline, and he teaches them to be accountable for everything they do. By the time they’ve been in the program for a little while, they’re holding each other — and themselves — accountable. When someone says he can’t do a pull-up, his friends encourage him. When someone eats unhealthily, her classmates offer alternative suggestions. Even the early-morning physical training sessions the program offers to any Northridge student are starting to get more traction, with at least 10 kids showing up for each one.

When you’re talking a workout at 5:30 a.m., that’s a big deal, Kintzley said.

For Remi Ruiz, a junior in the third year of the program, learning about health and fitness has been a huge piece of the program.

“They teach us that fitness is a great form of discipline as well as bettering yourself as an individual,” Ruiz said. That self-control carries over into other aspects of his life, too.

For the greater good

For Kathy Rickart, who co-manages Tigges Farm in west Greeley with her sister Gale Loeffler and brother Ken Tigges, the motivation to be involved in Farm to School programs comes from a genuine care about the health of kids.

Rickart and her siblings have an open approach to programs like Farm to School — not only do they supply produce to Greeley-Evans School District 6, but they help Windsor schools with food-related events. Last year was the farm’s first year supplying produce to District 6, but they’re signed up to do the same next year. Currently, they’re contracted to provide nearly 450 pounds of bell peppers and chile peppers per month for three months during harvest time and 4,000 pounds of squash to the District 6 kitchen.

But Tigges Farm has Farm to School built into its business model, and the family always been focused on the community, not the cash.

Not all farmers have that luxury. It’s much less cost-effective for farmers to sell their wares to a school than it is to sell them wholesale. That can be prohibitive.

“We don’t do it for the money, I’ll tell you that right now,” Rickart said. “This is a school district, and they have a budget. It’s not like a for-profit company purchasing (produce). I think every farmer would absolutely love to participate if it is in an aspect that is not going to cut off their foot.”

She said it’s something the ag community will get behind when they can, because when children are beginning their lifetimes overweight or obese, they’re setting up for a life of struggles.

If Tigges Farm can make a difference by getting a kid to try squash for the first time or get excited for a bell pepper, then it’s all worth it.

“Do I feel the pressure to address obesity? No,” she said, pausing for a moment to think. “I feel the pressure to address good nutrition and fresh produce choices, which will then help with that situation.”

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