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Food + Cooking

Feeding the Troops

Published in Gourmet Live 06.27.12
An army marches on its stomach, so what are we serving ours? Gourmet Live's Siobhan Adcock reports on new policy initiatives and food-service feedback from across the military

Clockwise from top left: A Tent City cookout in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan; DFAC holiday dining at California's Presidio of Monterey base; assorted contents of an MRE, including the nutrition-powerhouse crackers.

Early this year, the U.S. Department of Defense announced an overhaul of its food service for members of the military. The Military Health System initiative, the first of its kind in more than 20 years, has so far met with approval from First Lady Michelle Obama, a champion of healthy eating through her Let's Move campaign and other efforts, as well as the men and women on the first line of defense. A Defense Department spokeswoman described the strategy: "We're working to align Service efforts to update menu standards, make healthier foods available in Service member dining facilities, and address obesity as a health and readiness issue across our Military Health System."

At first glance, the initiative seems simple, almost modest, in its goals: Serve more fresh foods on base. Post nutritional information about what's on offer. Help soldiers make informed food decisions. Provide more fruits and vegetables. It makes you wonder what, exactly, we were feeding our armed forces before this program was implemented.

The Department of Defense, through its Logistics Agency, oversees a huge food service program: It spends $4.65 billion annually to feed 1.45 million uniformed service members, civilians in service, and contractors. Its food service operations span the globe and range from thousand-seat dining facilities in Afghanistan to lowly vending machines on bases far from combat. It stands to reason that change might come slowly to a vast, complex, and expensive system.

We asked current and former members of the service in every division from the Marines to the Air Force to the Army Corps of Engineers to share their impressions of military meals, both on base and in the field, whether recent or long-remembered. All of them agreed that almost anything tastes good when you're far from home or under fire, and that given the obvious logistical complications of providing fuel to soldiers around the world, none of them were inclined to complain about the chow. "Sacrifice—particularly in the form of food options—is an expected part of military life," points out Lisa Horgan, who served as a biomedical engineer with the 48th Fighter Wing of the Air Force and was based in Lakenheath, England, from 1996 to 2000.

Necessary evils, aside, though, most of the servicemen and women we heard from had vivid memories of some, shall we say, not-so-necessary evils, such as the infamous MREs (meals, ready to eat) that more than one soldier recalls had the power to turn stomachs. And most servicepeople we spoke with reflected that their time in the military has had lasting effects on their palates. "To this day, I put hot sauce on just about everything I eat because of my time in the Marine Corps," acknowledges Jonathan B. Connors, an officer in the Marines in the early 1990s. Horgan agrees that she acquired a taste for spicy seasonings while eating in the military: "I always ask friends to pick up local spices for me when traveling. We've just received an amazing paprika from Hungary and a home-made dry rub from Texas." Likewise, my own father, an otherwise-excellent cook who did two tours in Vietnam as a Marine, never met a dish he wouldn't put Tabasco or cayenne pepper on—including French toast.

Daniel Gorman, an active National Guardsman and Iraq veteran who has served a total of 15 years in the Navy and the National Guard, suggests that the relationship between our soldiers and what they eat goes deep, and for good reason: "I think soldiers definitely gain an affinity for good food, particularly those that have been deployed or served in austere environments. It's almost as though given everything that is out of your control in those situations, food becomes one of the small things you can control in a certain way. Even the MRE comes with directions on how to eat it, but everyone has their way."

Eating on the Base

Military chow falls into a few different categories, explains Bridget Guerrero, an intelligence officer who served in the Marine Corps from 1990 to 2000, including a tour in Bosnia. "There's garrison food, or chow hall food; food eaten in a mess hall when deployed; and then packaged meals, or MREs. A young Marine typically eats all three meals at a mess hall, while older Marines avoid it at all costs." Most of the service members we heard from agree that chow hall food is "pretty decent," but even unlimited free hamburgers can become monotonous after a while.

Food standards for enlisted men and women were in a state of change even before the Military Health System announced its 2012 overhaul. MREs, for example, are in constant development, with new "dishes" introduced each year, while on base there are more options for today's soldier than ever before. Many bases now outsource food operations to private contractors, and American-style food courts, including familiar franchises such as McDonald's and Starbucks, became commonplace during the decade Guerrero spent in the Marines. "When I was deployed to Bosnia, food courts were set up on the bases so servicemen could spend their hard-earned cash on typical American junk food they'd find back at their bases—pizza, subs, burgers, and fries," she notes.

Today's military dining facilities, also known in the Army as DFACs (Dining Facilities Administration Centers), are impressive in both the scale of their operations and the variety of options available. "When I first got to Iraq, I really expected to see the classic image of the cooks in their mobile kitchens, slaving away over grills for the troops," Gorman recalls. "This wasn't really the case. In fact, at Victory Base Complex, they had a giant DFAC with a 24-hour breakfast bar where you could get omelets made to order, plus a Mongolian BBQ grill, an ice cream bar, and coffee machines. Somehow those places never made it on CNN!"

Depending on logistics, camp size, and whether or not the DFAC is operated by a contractor, on-base menus can vary widely from location to location and even from meal to meal. Mike Furrow, a former Army infantryman, recalls, "When we were stationed in the Sinai, the food at the base was really great. That was the best mess hall I've ever been to in the Army. I do remember one day we had king crab legs." Other service members pointed to the extraordinary efforts that often go into making holiday and pre-deployment meals special: lobster tail for Christmas, turkey with all the trimmings on Thanksgiving, even restaurant-quality steak in the middle of the Iraqi desert.

For the most part, though, the typical military mealtime experience is not unlike eating in a school dining hall, albeit a huge one where everyone is wearing more or less the same outfit. Brett Owens, an Army surgeon who was stationed in Iraq in 2004–05, had his meals at a standard dining facility operated by a Halliburton subsidiary: "We ate quite well. Like a college cafeteria without paying—fresh fruit and veggies, short order, and hot daily meals. And ice cream."

Yet just as in civilian life, eating healthily isn't necessarily any easier to do just because you've got lots of food options—or because your ability to do your job well depends on staying in good physical shape. The Defense Department disclosed in February that it currently spends in excess of $1 billion a year on medical care related to weight problems, including diabetes and heart disease.

As Bridget Guerrero observes, "Most young troops are typical American teenagers who have indulged in junk food for their entire lives. I would get rid of the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and all the fast food from bases. I'm guilty of it, too, but there is just nothing good about eating there, and you see them packed at lunchtime. Healthy options are now available. Convincing young servicemen to choose those options is the challenge." Nearly one third of potential military candidates are too overweight to serve, according to the DoD, and over a thousand more entry-level troops are discharged each year due to their failure to meet fitness and weight standards.

Army Corps of Engineers project manager Amy Holmes Harris, who recently returned from 12 months of service in Kabul, saw some of the benefits of the new DoD initiatives: "Before I left Afghanistan, I noticed that the DFACs at Bagram Airfield were starting to put up signs that were color-coded to guide your food choices." Green signaled good, low-fat, healthy options; red signs meant high in fat and sugar. "This helped," Harris explains, "because I would see the red sign and think twice about my food choice." But still she came in for an unpleasant surprise at home. "After all the exercise I did while deployed in Afghanistan—teaching spinning class, lifting weights, running—I was shocked to learn my total cholesterol rose 50 points during my deployment. I had control over what I ate but not how the food was cooked." Harris was one of several who remarked she was eagerly anticipating what's being called "Mrs. Obama's food program."

Rather than calling for changes in the way foods are prepared by food service contractors and military cooks, the Defense Department's emphasis so far has been on creating better options within the existing system: making sure that vending machines on bases contain healthy snacks, for example, and keeping DFACs open longer and later so that service members have the option of hitting the salad bar on base rather than the drive-through in town.

But it's worth noting that, for better or worse, the responsibility for eating healthy has always rested, in part, on the shoulders of soldiers themselves. As the DoD already knows quite well, you can hand a soldier a nutritionally dense cracker that provides half a day's worth of vitamins and minerals—standard issue in MREs—but you can't make her eat it.

Meals, Ready to Eat

There's no question that MREs are wonders of food science and packaging technology—they can be cold-stored for up to five years and are designed to be dropped out of airplanes. And there's also no question that combat chow has come a long, long way since packaged-for-deployment foods were invented by the military during World War I.

Sean Owens, an Army combat engineer who ate his share of modern-day MREs in the field during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations, remembers his first taste of military field grub. "When I was a kid, my father used to give us a special treat from a crate in the garage—Army C rations. I thought they were the best food on the planet. They took a little bit of work to open the cans with the enclosed opener—I think it was called a C-9. I could never get enough of them." Years later, Owens was in the position of comparing those old-school C rations to some cutting-edge MREs. "When I was in the Gulf, [the Army's] Natick research lab developed fresh bread for the MREs. It came out of the metal packets soft and fresh, just like it was fresh-baked. It still amazes me that they were able to develop it."

MREs arrive in large plastic sheaths about the size of a FedEx priority shipping package (usually 9 inches wide by 14 inches long, and a few inches thick) and contain a multicourse meal of individual packets, assorted condiments, and personal-care accessories, plus a packet containing a flameless chemical heating agent: Tear it open, add water, pop in a sealed packet of food, and prop the whole package upright (amusingly, the instructional label includes a diagram showing the heating packet propped up against a "ROCK OR SOMETHING"). Ten minutes later, there's your meal, ready to eat.

As a student at Officer Candidates School in Quantico, Virginia, in the mid-1990s, Marine Jonathan B. Connors participated in some of the user testing that went into the creation of today's MREs. "In the early '90s, there were only 12 main course options for MREs, half of which were inedible. During the testing phase, they served us different food options that eventually made it to the 'new' MREs, like pizza, Mexican food, or hot dogs. They monitored everything we ate or drank daily, measured us, weighed us, monitored caloric intake." In 1998, the military brought the total number of MRE menus from 12 to 24, and has developed, released, and rotated new menus each year since then. The 2012 MRE lineup includes Ratatouille, Cheese Tortellini, and Lemon Pepper Tuna.

By design, MREs contain the proper proportions of protein, carbohydrates, and fat and provide an adequate number of calories for a soldier in the field (that is, quite a lot: about 1,200 calories per meal). But some MREs are RE-er than others. Of the 24 menus currently in rotation, the most beloved are Meatballs in Marinara Sauce, Chili and Macaroni, and Spaghetti with Meat Sauce. Some of the more infamous modern-day MREs include Frankfurters in Sauce, or "the Five Fingers of Death" (the dogs came five to a pouch), and Chicken à la King, both now retired. "Cold coagulated fat and 'gravy'—you needed to be really hungry to choke that down," remembers Sean Owens.

"Field stripping" MREs is a common practice whereby soldiers headed out on a mission remove the parts of the MRE that they like from the package and leave the rest behind to make their meals easier to pack and carry. Equally common is the application of creative ingenuity to MRE elements to make them more portable and palatable. Mike Furrow gave an example: "Eating the MREs gets old really fast, so most people would bring their own food to the field. Lots of beef jerky and ramen noodles. We'd cook up some ramen, and then if we were lucky and had a Ham Slice MRE, we could chop up the ham slice and squeeze the cheese sauce in while we were cooking the noodles, and maybe the crackers too, to make a little soup." Daniel Gorman provided the recipe for another classic Frankenstein variation on the MRE, Ranger Pudding: "Dump the coffee packet, cocoa mix, salt, crackers, and anything else you can into one pouch and stir it all up. It's a pretty expedient way to eat everything all at once!"

Eating Off-Base

Today, just as ever in the military, the creative, adventurous, or lucky service member can improvise her own meals, or better yet, eat like the locals. "One of the main benefits of joining the military is seeing the world, and new service members can really take advantage of that by getting off base and trying food that many people may never get a chance to experience. That's one of the best things I've gotten out of it," Daniel Gorman declares. "I saw so many sailors in Japan never leave base because they served 'American' food, and they missed out on the phenomenal food available just outside the gate." Amy Holmes Harris agrees that some of her best meals in Afghanistan were locally inspired: "I liked it when they let the Afghan kitchen workers cook Afghan food: lamb kebabs; Kabuli pulao rice; manti, which are meat dumplings; and a spicy tomato-cauliflower dish."

One of Gorman's top food memories is of his time in the field in Kuwait, where he was deployed along with members of the Hawaii National Guard. "I was with a bunch of Pacific Islanders, and cooking is a big part of their culture. Their families back home would mail bags of rice, nori, dozens of cans of Spam, and bottles of shoyu [soy sauce] to make Spam musubi and grill up chicken on a barbecue we'd MacGyver together." (One of Gorman's top suggestions for new recruits: "Learn to cook.")

Finding some way to diversify food offerings on the base by integrating local culinary resources would be one change Lisa Horgan would heartily endorse for today's service members: "I loved the adventure of eating new cuisines and learning new styles of preparation from the locals. Somehow differences in politics and doctrine become insignificant when bonding over an amazing bowl of tikka masala," she notes.

What's most important, for both the health and the effectiveness of our men and women in the service, is that the quality of what's offered remain high: "Better food means more energy to train and fight with a clear head," Bridget Guerrero says. Jonathan B. Connors agrees: "The ability of our military to perform is based on several very important factors—a key factor is making sure they are well fed and healthy. If they are well fed, they will perform well."

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