Army Fights a Healthy War

The U.S. Army’s foodservice program is getting a new look, and a strong emphasis on nutrition is a big part of the change.

US army foodservice programCol. Maria Worley, chief dietitian for the U.S. Army, has dreamed for 20 years of being able to apply a healthier and more nutritional perspective to Army foodservice. Worley is finally seeing that vision become reality as the Army prepares to launch "Making It Fresh—Your Choice For Performance." The concept is getting a field test, so to speak, at two Army training facilities, Worley says, with an eventual expansion to general Army bases and hospitals around the country.

"Making it Fresh" speaks to the program’s goal of helping soldiers, staff and patients replenish their energy with "great tasting, freshly prepared foods," Worley says. It also applies nutrition knowledge as it affects cognitive alertness, healing, athletic capabilities and disease prevention and combines it with culinary skills plus health education to enhance the overall dining experience. Healthy eating, Worley says, is "fueling" for better performance, and soldiers need to be "athletes."

The transition comes as the Army begins a new era of "realignment," believed to be the most significant change since World War II, adding 65,000 active duty soldiers and reshaping its "footprint" to become more mobile. In conjunction with the “"e-stationing," there’s an emphasis on improving life for military families.

Overall, Worley points out, "We are trying to help soldiers have a better quality of life." The new realignments are  "just one aspect of feeling good and living well. Staying on station longer gives families and soldiers more stability and a bit less stress."

"Making it Fresh" is being rolled out as part of a new look to Army cafeterias, designed by Inman Foodservice Group LLC, of Nashville, Tenn. Bill and Nancy Inman created a layout for a servery designed as an upscale food court with 12 quick-service concepts from which facilities can choose.

"We serve 18 to 25-year-old soldiers," says Worley, "and they’re used to food courts with a flair for good food." The wide variety of menu options for Army hospital facilities will emphasize freshness, quality and service. The venues will be uniform to provide "a cohesive appearance for Army hospital foodservice," she adds.

Each station is self-contained, with back-of-the-house preparation handled in a smaller main kitchen. The new stations are:

—Station OCONUS, which features international fare from stir fries to quiches;

—Doughboy Pizza, offering pizzas, pasta dishes and calzones;

—Welcome Home Country Cooking, serving casseroles, mac and cheese and a daily carved meat and mashed potatoes special;

—The Grill Sergeant Bistro, which features all-American items such as Buffalo wings, Chicago-style hot dogs and Philly cheesesteaks;

—Field of Green Salad Sensations, where customers can either create their salads from dozens of ingredients or choose a packaged salad;

—Bronze Star Deli, with deli sandwiches, cold and hot subs, melts, paninis, soups and side salads;

—The Hot Zone Mexican Cantina, which specializes in fresh Tex/Mex items from enchiladas to huevos rancheros;

—Smokes Bar-B-Que, which offers barbecue favorites from the Carolinas to Texas;

—Hydration Station, where soda, juices and teas are sold;

—The Hasty Snack Attack kiosk, which merchandises fresh and packaged selections from several of the other dining venues;

—Uncle Sugar’s Desserts, which has in-house-made cakes, pies, fresh fruit and cookies; and

—The Rucksack Convenience Store, which sells grab-and-go meal options, snacks and beverages.

Bill and Nancy Inman, who developed the design, layout and equipment plans for the project, studied existing Army cafeterias. "There’s been a shift in the use of space," says Bill Inman. "Today, as in non-military hospitals, the number of beds has gone down and there are more outpatients. The big kitchens are being reduced, and we increased retail space by moving walls. We’re cooking to order."

Among other things, the new program will result in energy savings, Inman notes. For example, huge walk-ins that were under-utilized have been eliminated. In addition, the use of cooking equipment that had to be left on for long periods of time has been reduced. "They used to turn on equipment at 5 a.m. (for the day’s use). Now, they use FlashBake (ovens) as needed," Bill Inman says. "Fryers were eliminated. On the patient feeding side, room service was introduced."

With the new design, food court seating areas can be locked off from the serving stations and kept open 24 hours a day, and there will be vending areas and microwave ovens off the dining room. Fresh products such as salads, cold sandwiches and even some hot items will be sold after hours, stocked from the kitchen. Salads and cold sandwiches will also be available at a C-store and at kiosks.

The Inmans say they are "trying to create action stations, not just a hot line, and dining areas (that are) a sanctuary from a sterile, bustling hospital environment." The result will benefit not only soldiers but also staff and families.

"We hope to attract more visitors and families with more variety," Bill Inman notes. Worley anticipates a break-even or self-supporting situation as a result of the changes, compared to facilities that previously lost money.

To date, five designs have been approved and two are being built, Worley says, at a cost of $18 million. 

Additionally, construction is planned for troop feeding facilities in basic training sites such as Ft. Benning, Ga., and Ft. Jackson, S.C., along with military hospitals, starting at Ft. Hood, Texas. "Hopefully," she adds, "his will translate to the whole army."

Ft. Eustis, Va., where a 20,000-square-foot foodservice operation will be replaced, is expected to be the first facility with the new "Making it Fresh" food court and will soon have an operational kiosk. Similarly, at Darnell Army Medical Center at Ft. Hood, The Hasty Snack Attack kiosk will go up first to help out while the main kitchen is closed for renovations and meals are prepared in a temporary kitchen.

Recipes for "Making it Fresh" will reflect a healthier bias, a much-needed element because, Worley says, the military has "inherited America’s obesity epidemic."

"We’ve missed the piece that if you’re not eating right, you can’t do the job," she explains. "We’re seeing anemia and stress fractures in soldiers who don’t drink enough milk. We need to teach our soldiers to exercise and to eat healthy. The idea is that war fighters, patients and staff need the right fuel to work and play at their best."

Worley has launched an educational program to teach soldiers, drill sergeants and employees about the impact of nutritious foods on their mental and physical performance.

At Ft. Benning, Lt. Ericka Cisco, R.D., began making changes last spring, substituting brown rice for white rice and whole wheat for white bread. "We took out all sodas and substituted Gatorade, calcium-fortified orange juice and milk," Cisco says. Cakes and pies were removed from the menu, and Cisco, Foodservice Director Major William Denton and his assistant, James Jenkins, introduced a 9 p.m. snack of low fat milk and a granola bar to fortify soldiers for their 5:30 a.m. physical training activities.

"We increased their nutrition knowledge by using labels on food: red for 'performance limiting', amber for 'limited performance' and green for 'high performance'," she adds. “We have ovens that 'fry' without all the grease, and changed the salad bar to offer one big mixed salad and one with just lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. It saved a lot of money on condiments the soldiers didn’t have time to add to salads before."

Initially, the drill sergeants complained loudly about the loss of deep fried foods. Now, satisfaction surveys show the soldiers are "excited about the changes." They have more energy. The drill sergeants can’t believe how much better they feel. They say they’re trying to make healthier choices at home.

"We teamed up with the Army Research Institute and tested physical fitness scores," Cisco adds. "Those at facilities that made these changes had more energy, and when they had the option, the soldiers selected healthier foods. We do give them one 'morale booster' day on Saturday when they can have fries, burgers and hot dogs. We’ve applied for funding for all Army facilities to implement our food labeling and to do an educational DVD."

Lt. Col. Sonya Corum, dietitian at Ft. Jackson, is looking at performance nutrition to "change the culture and the dynamic and offer more fueling for mental and physical performance instead of 'feeding'."

The largest training site in the army, Ft. Jackson, trains 40,000 soldiers a year. "We set them up for success by giving them fundamental skills. Sometimes," Corum says, "we forget we need to bring in nutrition science."

Among the initial changes made at Ft. Jackson was adding spinach to salads and using calcium-enriched orange juice. "We are giving them more whole grains and high fiber foods, and we converted to brown rice or a blend. It’s a different way of thinking, and they’ll take what they learn with them after their tour of duty ends."

At Ft. Jackson, she says, "we’re cutting up fresh fruits because they didn’t have time to cut an orange or an apple. It’s made a big difference."

Not stretching Army food budgets was important, but Ft. Jackson has been able to stay "within our business parameters." Satisfaction studies have been "very positive."

Overall, Corum has found, the soldiers "truly welcomed the opportunity to learn about performance nutrition. We had a bit of a learning curve and we continue to refine the process. Some people thought that we had to have the fryers, but we proved them wrong.  Now, as we replace equipment, we will replace deep-fat fryers with ovens."

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