As Congress debated new nutritional standards for school lunches a few years ago, lawmakers got an earful from an influential lobby: Hundreds of retired military officers.

The retired generals, admirals and other military brass are still concerned about eating habits of children – young people the retired leaders hope will some day be fit enough to serve in the armed forces. Almost one in four Americans ages 17 to 24 are too obese to serve in the military, according to a recent report from the officers’ group. Through their organization Mission: Readiness, the senior military leaders pushed hard for the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a federal law that is shaking up public school lunches around the country.

The new school lunch standards required changes to the menus at Chicago Public Schools (read our recent story about CPS nutritional values here), which is offering more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and is reducing salt and bad fats from meals. Requirements for the federal law are being phased in over time. For instance, the law will require schools to further reduce the amount of salt in their foods in coming years. As the rules were being written for the law, the food and beverage industry lobbied to slow or change some guidelines, the New York Times reported.

READ MORE: Cracking The Code On School Lunches At CPS

Trying to find out nutritional information – including fat, calorie and salt content – on cafeteria offerings at Chicago Public Schools is no easy task.

In November, more than 300 former military officers representing Mission: Readiness sent Congress a letter urging the politicians to resist weakening the law at the behest of special interest groups. Specifically, they told Congress to “stand strong and united behind the current implementation of science-based school nutrition standards and to refrain from pursuing any mechanism that would weaken or delay the standards.”

Amy Dawson Taggart, national director of Mission: Readiness, tells us that her group is sending a message to Congress to not weaken the law by rolling back any efforts to make school meals healthier.

“We went through this big battle already,” she said. “We should be leaving nutrition to the nutritionists.”

President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in December 2010 after the legislation won unanimous support in the U.S. Senate and was approved by 61 percent of the U.S. House, according to the website GovTrack. Illinois representatives split along party lines with 12 Democrats supporting the bill and six Republicans opposing it, GovTrack data show.

Obesity is contributing to a bigger problem for the military. In most states, more than 70 percent of those 17 to 24 are unqualified to serve largely because they’re too overweight, don’t have a high school diploma or have a criminal record, according to Mission: Readiness.

There’s a precedent to the military’s involvement in school meals. National security was the impetus for the School Lunch Act of 1946, which created a federal meals program. Back then, the armed forces were concerned about a high number of malnourished recruits.

This blog entry was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Brett Chase, who can be reached at bchase@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9033. His Twitter handle is @brettchase.