Safe routes to school are important to our national security

The Times Record (Brunswick, ME) — By J.D. Williams, Vice Admiral, US Navy (Retired) — Remember the days when many kids walked or rode their bikes to school? Well, those days are long gone.

Since the 1960s, the percentage of kids who walk to school has dropped from 40 percent to just about 10 percent. Meanwhile, Americans of all ages have adopted a much more sedimentary lifestyle, and one of the sad results is that childhood obesity in our country has tripled.

We know that obesity can lead to serious and life-long health risks and is a contributing factor to skyrocketing medical costs. Americans spend upward of $147 billion per year on obesity-related medical expenditures, such as Type 2 diabetes.

Those are the financial and physical costs. But obesity brings with it an additional threat that is not often top-of mind: Obesity threatens our national security.

The general lack of physical fitness among our nation’s 17- to 24-year-olds is one of the top disqualifiers for military service. In fact, one in four young adults is too overweight to serve in the armed services.

Too many military recruits fail to meet required height to weight standards. In fact, between 1995 and 2009 the military reported that 150,000 otherwise qualified recruits failed their entrance exams due solely to body fat.

Every year the military discharges more than 1,200 first term enlistees before their contracts are up due to weight problems. Our military must then recruit and train their replacements at a cost of $50,000 per person, totaling roughly $60 million annually.

While not a silver bullet to this multifaceted problem, one way to increase physical activity and promote weight control is increasing options for more students — and adults for that matter — to safely bike and walk.

An example of this is the bike/walking path along Route 1 in Brunswick and Topsham.

Another viable example is the federal Safe Routes to School Program, which provides funding to schools and municipalities for infrastructure improvements like sidewalks and bike paths. Since the inception of this program, state transportation departments have awarded more than 4,300 grants, which have benefited more than 11,000 schools and 4.8 million children.

Here in Maine, the Department of Transportation reports that these funds have been used to assist more than 90 communities.

Safe Routes to School programs have shown to be successful in increasing physical activity among students. A study of one program found a doubling in the number of kids biking and walking to school in just three years.

These are impressive results and ones I would like to see Maine communities utilize as part of our strategy to get our kids moving again, increase their health and well-being and decrease the growing epidemic of obesity.

As the Senate considers surface transportation reauthorization, I urge Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins to support the bipartisan Cardin-Cochran amendment. This amendment would make it easier for smaller communities in Maine to access federal funding for essential biking and walking projects.

Alone, such investments are not going to solve the nation’s child obesity problem, but they should be included as part of our ongoing community efforts to ensure that our child obesity crisis does not become an even more serious national security threat.