The Air Force serves some 53.4 million meals a year to airmen around the globe. That’s enough to feed the fans at Pasadena, Calif.’s Rose Bowl—about 92,500 seats—one meal a day for roughly a year and a half.
Great effort goes into ensuring that airmen have access to nutritious, appealing, quality food, no matter where they are, according to officials with USAF and the other organizations involved in feeding service members. There are more than 35,000 airmen on deployments—including combat airmen in Afghanistan, who are fed by the Army—and more than 57,000 airmen stationed overseas, according to Air Force figures released in early May. They all need to eat.
The feeding enterprise constantly experiments with menus and dining alternatives to keep meals convenient and varied.
“Our piece is to provide the fuel, as it were, to keep that airman going,” said Michael J. Teal, chief of food service and business activity policy for USAF’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services. “There is a capability that is required. We have to feed the force,” he said. “We are committed to making sure we are taking care of [airmen] regardless of … location, … whether it’s a big base, small base, overseas, contingency operations, downtown Miami, or the middle of Rapid City, South Dakota. We treat them all the same.”
Military-supplied meals touch the palates of Air Force basic military trainees, enlisted personnel, officers, civilian employees, and contractors. They consume meals hot and cold, ranging from individual meal, ready to eat (MRE), rations and group rations in the field, to boxed flight meals for aircrews and maintainers on flight lines, to entrees in dining facilities on bases Stateside and enduring locations overseas.
“If there is a contingency anyplace in the world, we have military cooks [who] can deploy to provide agile combat support,” said Teal.
The Air Force spent roughly $500 million on food services in Fiscal 2012, including buying some $220 million worth of food products.
USAF deals with 57 prime vendors across the globe, said William Spencer, chief, Appropriated Fund Food and Beverage Operations Section, with the Air Force Personnel Center.
It costs $15.30 per day to feed an airman in Afghanistan and $14.60 for airmen in other parts of Southwest Asia, said Teal—but those figures are for the food only, not transport costs. For airmen stationed in Europe, Guam, Japan, and South Korea, for example, the basic daily food expense is $11.80. For airmen assigned Stateside, the per-day food cost is $9.65, he said.
Food services airmen and contractors prepare meals in the Air Force’s 172 dining facilities (known as DFACs), and flight kitchens worldwide.
“We use military cooks at probably 50 of our total operations. We do have some locations that are 100 percent” staffed by contractors, said Teal. “If you go into any dining facility in the Air Force, I think you come out saying, ‘That was a good meal.’ Our guys and gals do a good job. Our contractors do a good job.”
Air Force personnel consume the bulk of their total meals each year in service DFACs. Enlisted airmen are the principal users of dining halls, especially junior personnel who live in on-base dormitories and use dining cards under an arrangement known as essential station messing. Enlisted members who receive other forms of basic allowance for subsistence also frequent the DFACs, paying for their food.
A 120-day Pipeline
Depending on the location, DFACs may also serve—for a price—officers, civilian employees, contractors, retirees, and even family members. Creech AFB, Nev., for example, boasts one of USAF’s newer dining halls; it caters to most of the personnel who work on the base, the hub of Air Force remotely piloted aircraft operations, because other options are limited.
Creech “doesn’t have any dorms”—many personnel commute from Nellis Air Force Base in North Las Vegas, nearly an hour away—and “there is the need to feed the force” at Creech “and let them get back to their mission,” said Teal.
The Air Force uses a standardized 14-day menu for its dining facilities worldwide, meaning that on any given day, the main entrée offerings available to airmen stationed in Europe, the Pacific, or Middle East are the same as those at Stateside locations.
For example, the dinner options on May 16 at the Desert Inn Dining Facility at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., were chicken cordon bleu, vegetable stir fry, and roast loin of pork, with carrots, au gratin potatoes, and corn as the sides. That evening, airmen at the Buon Appetito Dining Facility at Aviano AB, Italy, had those same choices, as did visitors to the O’Malley Military Dining Facility at Kunsan AB, South Korea, according to the menus for those halls.
However, there are exceptions to the 14-day menu. In Afghanistan, the Army is in charge of feeding all US personnel—as it was in Iraq—and offers different menus at its Bagram Airfield and Kabul Airport dining facilities, staffed by contractors. NATO manages the dining halls at Kandahar Airfield, said David P. Staples, who heads the Operations Directorate in the Army’s Joint Culinary Center of Excellence (JCCOE).
As the US troop drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the Army’s standardized 28-day contingency operations menu has ramped down to a 21-day format, said Staples, and by April 2014, the menu will be on a 14-day cycle.
“The [food] pipeline is 120 days from the States to the prime vendor, so in order to transition to ensure we have no waste or excess at the end of this drawdown, … we are reducing the menus,” he said. Until the drawdown is complete, the Army won’t be adding new items to the menu, he said.
The Defense Logistics Agency oversees contracts with prime vendors supplying the food for Afghanistan, said Anthony Amendolia, chief of Middle East and Europe regions customer operations in DLA Troop Support’s Subsistence supply chain. It does the same for the Air Force in those parts of the world outside of Afghanistan where USAF is in charge of dining facilities. In Southwest Asia, this means the huge troop Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, and at five “undisclosed locations” that the Air Force doesn’t name due to host-nation sensitivities but where the service has an enduring presence.
When airmen rapidly deploy to a new hot spot on the globe, the Air Force—if it’s the designated lead service for food—works with DLA to “push food forward” immediately to sustain them, said Spencer. At first, this usually means individual MREs and Unitized Group Rations, he said. The UGRs range from self-heating meals that require neither cooks nor field kitchens to those including fresh, perishable items prepared in field kitchens.
The goal is to establish, inside 120 days, a “steady location” where airmen have access to the “normal food” they would find in a dining facility, said Spencer. “Once it becomes a steady location, we will set up the same way we do in the US,” he said. “DLA will put a vendor in place” to provide food items that meet the Air Force’s requirements to complete dining hall menus, he said.
“Air Force headquarters really advises us on which items are needed to make up the menu,” said Amendolia. “Our role is not to determine the menu; our role is just to provide what items are needed.”
By law, most foodstuffs must come from US suppliers, regardless of where an installation is located. For example, “all of the food that they eat in Afghanistan—with the exception of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and fresh breads—comes directly from the United States, [on] containers shipped across the ocean and [through] different countries,” said Amendolia.
“All the food is delivered in sealed containers, so … it is safe in transit, whether it is going from a prime vendor’s warehouse to a customer or across the ocean,” he said.
Items from the US used to go through the port of Karachi, Pakistan, and then over land routes into Afghanistan, but “that’s not been the case there for a little while,” said Amendolia. The food supplies now “go through several countries up north and come down, so it is a long process,” he said, referring to the Northern Distribution Network that flows supplies into Afghanistan through Russia and neighboring former Soviet states.
Some food products are moved in and around Afghanistan by air. Mobility aircraft air-dropped about 12 million pounds of food and water to widely scattered locations in Afghanistan in 2012, according to Air Forces Central Command.
The prime vendor for Afghanistan is the Supreme Group, an international supply chain conglomerate based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Its bakery in Afghanistan supplies breads and pastries. It flies in produce, usually from Dubai.
Eight locations in Afghanistan are on the Army’s Worldwide Directory of Sanitarily Approved Food Establishments for Armed Forces Procurement. The job of inspecting these facilities falls to Army Veterinary Services personnel—not because dogs are involved in sniffing out pests but because veterinarians have expertise in public health, microbiology, and pathology. Veterinary Services ensures facilities meet quality and safety standards, said CW5 Ronald Biddle, senior food safety officer in quality assurance in the JCCOE.
Four of these sites are water sources, one is a bakery, two are distributors, and one is a storage facility, he said. Most of the bottled water US military personnel consume in Afghanistan comes from those Afghan sources, said Staples. Afghans also provide some fruits and vegetables, chips, soda, noodles, and ice, he said. The Afghan First program encourages Afghan farmers to supply produce, said Staples.
The DLA makes a strong effort to provide airmen overseas with the same name-brand products they’re used to at home, said Amendolia. “They will see French’s mustard, Heinz ketchup. They will see all of the major brands that they are used to. We always make sure that they don’t see some generic brand.”
DOD standards stipulate that a female service member involved in moderate activity needs about 2,500 calories a day, while her male counterpart needs about 3,200 calories, said Renita C. Frazier, a dietician in the JCCOE. During the summer months in Afghanistan, said Staples, an airman or soldier consumes, on average, about six liters of water per day.
Early on in Afghanistan, and again in Iraq, troops in the field were stripping their MREs of unwanted items to lighten the ponderous loads they had to carry. These discarded items represented lost calories, and it was not uncommon for troops to lose weight.
To help ensure that airmen—and other military personnel—get adequate calories and nutrients in Afghanistan’s high-altitude terrain and extremes of hot and cold, the Pentagon introduced the Modular Operational Ration Enhancement, or MORE, to supplement MREs and other operational rations for personnel in the field.
These high-calorie MORE components are meant to combat weight loss and decreased physical and cognitive abilities. They contain items such as beef jerky, energy gels, carbohydrate-fortified beverages, caffeinated gum and mints, and “Zapplesauce”—applesauce enriched with maltodextrin to provide an energy boost.
“Quite a bit of science is behind the food that is behind the soldier or the airman, to make sure they are taken care of, whether they be in extreme environments of driving trucks or standing on the flight line in [the] heat,” said Alphonzo Byrd, chief of the JCCOE’s Quality Assurance Division.
Go for Green
Food service management boards convene regularly in Afghanistan to discuss menu options, said Staples. Chicken livers were dropped from the menu based on troop feedback, he said. As part of the drive to add more nutrient-dense foods, the Army added a fish dish once a week to raise omega-3 fatty acid levels, said Frazier.
Managers at dining facilities at home and abroad do have some leeway, however.
“While we have a menu, we still allow managers to be managers,” said Staples. “Stir-fry became a huge popular meal because one manager made it.”
The dining facilities in Afghanistan have also incorporated local cuisine. “We have lamb, rice, flatbread on the menu. Those things were added because, not only do our people like them, we feed a lot of Afghan National Army” and local nationals at the coalition hospitals, said Staples.
While strong efforts are made to satisfy everyone’s dietary needs—such as soymilk for lactose-intolerant persons; ample fruit and vegetables and meat substitutes for vegetarians; and halal meals for Muslims—Staples acknowledged that there are some strict diets the Army simply can’t support in the deployed environment.
The Air Force, like the other services, has adopted the “Go for Green” campaign to help airmen make more healthful eating choices at dining facilities. Food lines have labels identifying high-performance foods versus those either high in fat or containing ingredients that hinder performance.
“We color-code all of the menu items,” explained Fred McKenney, chief of Air Force Food and Beverage. “Green is ‘eat all that you want.’ Yellow is ‘eat in moderation.’ Red is ‘only eat occasionally,’?” he said. The goal is to get airmen to come to rely on the color codes, thereby relieving them of the burden of having to spend time trying to figure out the nutritional value of each food item.
“I think that is a better way to address that than to have them have to read each description for each item,” he said. Examples of green-coded foods are fresh fruits and vegetables and baked chicken without skin, said Frazier. Soft drinks are a “red” performance-hindering food under the rating system, she said.
Amendolia said DLA goes to extremes so that airmen have holiday meals on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and Passover, birthday cake for the Air Force’s birthday, and extra food available for the Super Bowl.
DLA starts as early as April to order the food items for Thanksgiving, such as whole turkeys and various pies. By June, it’s planning for the Christmas meal and making sure items like eggnog and nuts, not normally part of the menus, will be on hand on time, said Amendolia.
“We take pride in the fact that everybody—no matter where they are—gets a Christmas and Thanksgiving meal. We know they are not at home” and the only thing to remind them of home “is that meal,” he said.
In 2010, surveys indicated many enlisted airmen weren’t happy with the variety of food in USAF dining halls or with the limited hours the halls were open. They were making use of the dining facilities—DFACs— for only about one of the three meals per day they were entitled to, said Fred McKenney, chief, Air Force Food and Beverage Branch at the Air Force Personnel Center.
Enter the Food Transformation Initiative, or “Food T,” as food service officials call it—shorthand for a series of experiments to make dining halls more like those on college campuses, with more choices, more appeal, and more healthful options.
The Air Force launched Food T in October 2010 on a test basis at six locations: JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Fairchild AFB, Wash.; Little Rock AFB, Ark.; MacDill AFB, Fla.; Patrick AFB, Fla.; and Travis AFB, Calif. In addition to the college cafeteria-style layout, the idea was to expand variety and eating options available to airmen using meal cards on base. Aramark of Philadelphia is the contractor.
The Air Force added seven more bases—Barksdale AFB, La.; Beale AFB, Calif.; Dyess AFB, Tex.; Eglin AFB, Fla.; Ellsworth AFB, S.D.; F. E. Warren AFB, Wyo.; and Vandenberg AFB, Calif.—in August 2012, with Sodexo of Gaithersburg, Md., as the contractor.
The first set of dining halls switched from cafeterias to the food court-like setup found on most college campuses, said McKenney. This group also permitted airmen to use their meal cards at the base’s morale, welfare, and recreation food and beverage outlets, such as the bowling alley, golf course, and community center. Expanding meal card use to these sites also gave airmen access to meals before and after dining hall hours. The DFACs, too, stayed open for longer hours, going from 60 to 112 hours a week, said McKenney.
The Air Force also opened the DFACs at the first six pilot locations to the broader base population to enhance a sense of community on the installation, he said.
Moreover, to give airmen access to food right on the flight line, three Provisions on Demand (POD) kiosks were opened at Elmendorf, Little Rock, and Travis. Each POD is “a kiosk that you would see at an airport, where you have got a lot of grab-’n’-go … stuff,” said Michael J. Teal from the Air Staff’s manpower, personnel, and services office. The PODs have “various chilled and hot cabinets” where items like sandwiches and wraps are displayed. Popular items for sale are carrots and celery with hummus, cups of grapes or berries, and cups of cheese cubes and pepperoni, he said. Enlisted airmen can use their meal cards at the POD, he said.
Of the three, the Knucklebuster Café POD at Travis is the busiest, said Teal. Open around the clock, it gives maintainers on the flight line easy access to the food they want. Knucklebuster averages 350 visitors a day but has served as many as 600 in a day.
“We are very proud of the fact that with the POD, we do bring hot food out there. At 0200 in the morning, you can get a chicken dinner at Travis,” said Teal, noting that airmen will eat healthy “if it is done well.” The feedback from the first six pilot locations has been promising. Enlisted airmen on meal cards ate more than 360,000 additional meals.
The Air Force has also been updating the 14-day menu under an initiative called Operation Refresh. Over the course of the past 18 months or so, the menu has incorporated 22 new recipes, said Teal. The goal is to introduce one new recipe a month. However, certain comfort food items—fried chicken, spaghetti, and lasagna—“will always be popular,” he said.