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By Brigadier General David Brahms, U.S. Marine Corps (Ret.)
It’s more than just a story on the evening news. By now you’ve likely noticed it in your communities and schools: obesity rates are on the rise in this country.
The obesity epidemic is especially problematic when it comes to children because it has both long- and short-term effects on their physical health. Obese or overweight children are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and have bone and joint problems. They are also more likely to be obese adults.
I am concerned because, as a retired U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General and member of the nonprofit, Mission: Readiness, I know that more than 70 percent of 17- to 24-year olds in the U.S. cannot serve and being that overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why young adults cannot join the military. In other words, childhood obesity more than a health crisis — it’s a critical matter of national security.
In California, it is estimated that 36 percent of ninth graders are overweight. What they drink during and after school may be the culprit: research shows a correlation between rising obesity rates to the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugar in the diets of both children and adults in the United States.
Unfortunately, too many children in California do not have adequate access to free, safe drinking water where they live and go to school. According to a recent report by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, an estimated 41 percent of children and 65 percent of adolescents drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage each day. This is alarming when coupled with the fact that the average 12 oz can of soda contains 9-10 teaspoons of sugar. One can has more sugar than the American Heart Association’s recommended daily intake of 5-8 teaspoons for adolescents.
One way to keep childhood obesity rates down? Provide and promote fresh drinking water during school hours and at mealtimes. Since kids spend most of their day at school or in childcare, ensuring that safe drinking water is available in these settings is mission critical.
This is not a new issue for the U.S. military. I can tell you from experience: properly hydrated soldiers are a critical component to the success of any mission. Providing water to our troops during training and in operational environments is top priority.
Corporate leaders have stepped up to the plate and are working to provide in filtered drinking water to students. Brita, for example, has committing to donate a number of their “Hydration Stations” to school and community sites in California and across the nation.
Regional Access Project Foundation and Riverside County Department of Public Health have partnered to install nine new hydration stations in schools and communities throughout the Riverside County as part of their successful “Rethink Your Drink” campaign.
The California Endowment, Community Water Center, Rural Community Assistance Corporation, and Pueblo Unido CDC have embarked on an “Agua4All” campaign to install 120 water stations in Eastern Coachella and South Kern.
At the state level, the California State Legislature will be taking up two bills focused on improving water access and consumption in schools. AB 496 (Rendon) calls on the California Department of Education to develop a one-stop shop for school districts to find information and funding for water quality and water facilities improvements. SB 334 (Leyva) would delete a provision authorizing a school district to opt out from providing free, potable drinking water to students, require school districts to test water quality, and ultimately provide safe, clean drinking throughout the entire school day.
At the federal level, there is an opportunity to strengthen the language for drinking water in the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines. Along with updating these important standards, there is a unique prospect to add a water graphic to “MyPlate,” the primary representation of the dietary guidelines for the American public. Posters of MyPlate are nearly ubiquitous in school cafeterias and would help with educating students about the importance of drinking more water.
All of these efforts deserve applause. This all-hands-on-deck approach to improve access and consumption of safe drinking water is a model that can and should be successfully replicated in communities across California. Water can help keep our children healthy and our nation secure. That’s a win-win in my book.