Last fall, the Department of Defense announced that 77% of Americans aged 17-24 were ineligible for military service due to a variety of factors, including obesity, academic issues, or a history of crime or drug use. This marked a sharp increase in ineligibility from the 71% released in 2017, and confirmed the fears of many in the defense community. Our military is experiencing a worsening recruitment crisis, one that could have drastic consequences for our national security in the near future.
Finding a solution to this problem is one of the reasons why I joined Mission: Readiness, a membership organization of retired admirals and generals that advocates for strengthening our national security by ensuring children are healthy and have access to the best education possible.
However, for many families in New Mexico, access to quality health and education programs can be limited, especially for families with low incomes and parents of infants and toddlers.
Fortunately, there are two programs that can expand access to these critical services – the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Child Care and Development Block Grants (CCDBG).
WIC provides pregnant mothers and parents of infants, toddlers and preschoolers with the resources they need to access healthy food and develop healthy habits that will last long into their lives. This in turn can help reduce rates of obesity, one of the leading medical causes of military ineligibility. However, children also need a foundation of quality education and care during their early years for proper mental and social development, education and care that is often too expensive or non-existent for many low-income families.
This is where CCDBG can help. Federal funding through CCDBG gives state governments resources they can pass on to families to make the child care and education choices that best fit their needs. These grants can also help address the cost of early child care and education by giving providers the resources they need to contend with the current labor and child care crisis.
However, despite the efficacy of these programs, they are critically underfunded. In New Mexico, only 12% of eligible children can get a child care slot with a CCDBG voucher due to limited funding, and only 40.5% of families eligible for WIC receive help from the program. Without these nutrition and early education supports, many children are left behind. In New Mexico, 21% of youth ages 10 to 17 were obese as of 2021, a leading contributor to the 72% of New Mexican youth who cannot qualify for military service.
This is why it is critical that our members of Congress support these key nutrition and early learning programs. Fortunately, all of our congressional delegation has supported federal funding for similar programs such as Head Start and Preschool Development Grants, and I thank U.S. Reps. Melanie Stansbury, Gabe Vasquez, Teresa Leger Fernandez, and U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján for their support.
However, more must be done. Programs like WIC and CCDBG need expanded funding through appropriations to help the thousands of New Mexican families that need their support to build the foundations their children need to live healthy, successful lives. In doing so, we support not only our next generation, but bolster our national security for years to come.
Brig. Gen. Judy Griego, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), former Cabinet Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Veterans Services, is a member of Mission: Readiness