In Mississippi, Childhood Obesity Hurts Military Recruiting

BY Alicia Lozano  May 12, 2010 at 4:55 PM EDT

High school senior DeaShaun Taylor wants to join the army when he graduates this spring. But Taylor, who lives in Shelby, Miss., is among the one in four young people in the United States who don’t qualify for military service because of their weight — he’s working to lose about 30 pounds by August. Recently, a group of retired military officers said in a report that the obesity epidemic represents a threat to national security.

The NewsHour spoke to Taylor as part of our series on efforts to combat childhood obesity in Mississippi — the state with the highest percentage of overweight children in the nation.

The problem in Mississippi is particularly acute, but other states are not far behind: Nationwide, 32 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are obese or overweight, according to a new study.

Childhood obesity rates have been on the rise since the 1970s, but the issue has been grabbing headlines this year, as First Lady Michelle Obama has made it her signature cause. The March issue of the journal Health Affairs, which was dedicated to childhood obesity, has an overview of the problem.

Mississippi has been at the forefront of implementing changes in its schools on the state level. Among other efforts, a 2006 law requires school vending machines to be stocked with only water, fruit juice and lower-calorie drinks. And a law passed in 2007 mandates increased physical education classes in schools — at least 150 minutes per week for children in grades K-8 (a report by the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools has more details.)

But the state is fighting a difficult battle. Forty-four percent of children ages 10 to 17 are overweight, and the factors in play — poverty, lack of access to fresh food, food culture and others — are complex and interrelated.

Watch the NewsHour tonight for the first in a series of on-air and online reports.