PORTLAND, Maine (AP) -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that it's vitally important for America's youth to have healthy eating habits, calling it an issue of national security as well as educational accomplishment and health care.
Obesity and hunger affect school achievement and health care in fairly obvious ways, Vilsack said, while speaking to a group at the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center. What's less obvious is the impact on the nation's military readiness, he said.
Only 25 percent of people, ages 17 to 24, are eligible to serve in the armed forces, partly because many are overweight or obese, he said.
"If we don't address this issue, we're going to have a shrinking number of young people who are qualified for military service, and when you have an all-volunteer military, you have to have a large pool to draw from," he said in an interview following his speech. "It's a national security issue, as well as an economic and health care issue."
Vilsack visited Maine to talk up the U.S. Department of Agriculture's efforts to better promote the importance of childhood nutrition and physical activity. After speaking at Maine Medical Center, he visited the U.S. Coast Guard base in South Portland to talk about the link between nutrition and the nation's military preparedness.
The USDA has programs aimed at getting unhealthy foods out of the schools, replaced by more nutritional selections. It also has initiatives promoting farmers' markets, having schools buy their foods locally, feeding low-income children nutritional foods during the summer, and encouraging grocery stores to operate in so-called "food deserts" that have little or no access to supermarkets that sell fresh and affordable foods, Vilsack said.
A key to improving eating habits is to improve access to and information about healthy foods, he said.
Vilsack said he's starting to see a "generational shift" in attitudes toward food. A lot of younger people today would just as soon eat a piece of fruit as a piece of chocolate cake, he said.
Vilsack said he has a lot of respect for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his efforts to improve New Yorkers' eating habits. A judge this week struck down New York's ban on big sugary drinks, ruling that the 16-ounce size limit for sodas and some other sweet drinks was arbitrary and outside the city's authority.
The department supports Bloomberg's point that portion control matters, Vilsack said. But he's hoping the court action striking down the ban doesn't distract attention from the big picture of eating healthy.
"We don't want that court battle to take us in a different direction and lose sight of what he's trying to do," he said. "What he's trying to do and what we're trying to do is make sure healthy choices are available and that portion sizes are appropriate. It's moderation in all things."