JONESBORO — Childhood obesity poses a threat to national security, a group of retired U.S. military leaders warns.

And U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford said Thursday that Congress needs to do more to modernize public food policy.

“In the end, we can’t force people to make good choices,” Crawford, R-Jonesboro, said during an online panel discussion on the issue. “What we can do are provide the incentives and the resources to enhance their decision-making so that they do make the right choices.”

The Department of Defense reports 71 percent of Americans ages 17-24 are ineligible to serve in the military, and obesity is the leading medical disqualifier. In Arkansas, the rate is 74percent.

Crawford joined Arkansas members of Mission: Readiness, a group of 750 retired admirals and generals who are pushing for state and federal public policy solutions to prepare young people to serve the nation in any way they choose. The panel discussion underscored childhood obesity’s negative effect on national security.

Crawford and Mission: Readiness want to see expansion of a program that provides SNAP recipients one-to-one dollar matches to purchase locally grown produce at participating farmers markets and grocery stores, known as Double Up Food Bucks. The incentive money is provided by the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP). The program generally runs from June 1-Oct. 31 each year.

The Harps and Hays supermarket chains participate in the program in some cities. However, the financial allotment for most of the Hays stores has already been depleted.

GusNIP encapsulates the kind of creativity and dedication needed to eradicate childhood obesity in Arkansas, said retired Army Brigadier General Gary Profit.

“Mission: Readiness has identified consistent access to fresh and nutritious food as a critical need for national security,” Profit said. “If we do not act now to stem the rise of obesity, we will be left with fewer and fewer healthy, able-bodied young Americans who are ready to pursue success in the military or any career they may choose.”

Retired Army Brigadier General Charles Martin said the coronavirus pandemic exposed several issues for Arkansas, including food insecurity.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the greatest threats our nation has faced in generations and it’s hit children especially hard,” Martin said. “Prior to COVID-19 around 17 percent of the children in the United States experienced food insecurity. According to Feeding America, this could rise to as high as 25 percent due to the increased unemployment and poverty levels as a result of the pandemic.”

Harps executive Joel Cottrell said his company offers the Double Up Food Bucks program at eight locations, including the store in Rector.

“Implementation can be difficult, but the results are undeniable, and I want to do as much as I can to support these programs,” Cotrell said, adding the program needs to add more, such as providing signs that call attention to the store’s participation.

Jeremy Adams, Double Up Food Bucks program director, said the number of SNAP recipients has grown each year since its inception in 2016.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a SNAP recipient, shows up to use Double Up Food Bucks for the first time and the first words out of their mouth is ‘Is this real? This is too good to be true,’” Adams said. “Because this is a double coupon for fresh produce it’s like buy one get one free.”

In addition to providing incentives to SNAP recipients, Crawford advocates providing additional incentives to retailers to make more fresh vegetables available to everyone.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we’ve got is actually getting fresh food into the hands, particularly in rural communities, who have very few choices with regard to where they purchase their food,” Crawford said. “And so, in many cases in small town America, they have to make their food purchases, sometimes in convenience stores. Convenience stores don’t handle fresh produce.”

This isn’t the first time military leaders have been concerned over child nutrition, according to Mission: Readiness.

In 1945, Major General Lewis Hershey, director of the Selective Service System, testified to Congress that the military rejected at least 40 percent of recruits during World War II for reasons related to poor nutrition. The following year, the National School Lunch Program was established to protect national security by ensuring children had access to nutritious meals.