FORT CAMPBELL, KY.—Last September a renovated cafeteria at the Blanchfield Army Community Hospital on the Fort Campbell base opened. The $10 million renovation, which was the brainchild of retired Col. Maria Worley, R.D., was designed to bring healthy dining front and center.
According to Lt. Col. Colleen Kesselring, who is in charge of foodservice at the hospital, the cafeteria had not been renovated since it was built in 1982. The only change to the operation during the past 30 years had been the addition of a few pieces of equipment. So when Worley pitched the idea for a renovated cafeteria with a focus on health in 2006, the U.S. Army Medical Department gave the go-ahead for the project.
Extreme makeover: The renovation was a complete gut job. Two million dollars was spent on equipment, with the remaining $8 million used for construction costs. “The whole idea with the renovation was to make foodservice fresher with a focus on health,” Kesselring said.
Five Army hospitals were selected to run a pilot for the project. Kesselring said the five sites—Fort Campbell is one of the five—were selected because the sites currently were in need of a renovation and the hospitals were on bases with large troop installations.
The basics of the renovation are the same: make healthy, good tasting food available to customers. Each of the five pilot locations was given a selection of plug-and-play stations to select from. Fort Campbell has the following stations: Welcome Home, which has traditional items like meatloaf and mashed potatoes; OCONUS, which serves made-to-order ethnic cuisines, such as Chinese; Bronze Star, which offers deli sandwiches made to order, wraps and pizza; Grill Sergeant Bistro, which has rotisserie chicken and charbroiled hamburgers; and Field of Greens, which is a salad bar.
Every pilot location has Field of Greens and Grill Sergeant Bistro, but there are regional-specific stations as well. For example, at Fort Hood in Texas there is a barbecue station called Smokey Bones.
In addition to revamping the servery to include stations and more made-to-order items, additional seating was created, as well as an educational space for cooking classes. The space can be closed off for classes or opened for additional seating.
Weighty issue: Kesselring is very knowledgeable about obesity trends, especially as they pertain to the Army. “Prior to being deployed to Iraq in 2003, my experience in foodservice was we had to have one healthy choice entrée, one healthy choice starch and one healthy choice vegetable,” she said. “The rest of the offerings were whatever the soldiers wanted. For 10 or 15 years, it was all about what looks good. It wasn’t just about doing a cheesecake; it was about doing a chocolate cheesecake with caramel topping. We weren’t walking the [healthy] walk. It was about giving people what they wanted. Now, we are tricking them with choice. We are tricking them with ambience. The food looks good and tastes good. We still have the comfort foods, but it’s just not as much. You can’t get fried chicken, but you can get pasta primavera or your Chinese food cooked right in front of you.”
Kesselring said when the soldiers are stationed on base, many of them eat at the hospital’s cafeteria. She said troop dining services is undergoing a healthy makeover as well, but the hospital was selected as the first push because Worley’s passion lay in the hospital setting and because a lot of times initiatives start in the medical field and branch out to other areas.
“I asked a soldier where she usually goes for lunch,” Kesselring said. “She said she normally goes to [one of the many fast food location on or near the base]. I asked her why she does that, and she said it’s what her mom did. You eat the foods that your parents role modeled to you. We have this generation of young adults who are truly a fast-food culture.”
Kesselring added that the spike in childhood obesity rates started in 1978, and those are the soldiers who are now in the Army. Before coming to Fort Campbell in 2006, Kesselring was stationed at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. While there she did research about troop dining facilities and found that people were asking for more healthy options. “For a long time the thought was people want healthy, but they don’t choose it,” she said. “If you do healthy in the right way, if you make it eye appealing and taste great, people will want it.”
That’s exactly what has happened at Blanchfield since the renovation. Since opening the cafeteria, monthly meal transactions have increased 22%, and that is without the troops stationed at Fort Campbell.
Kesselring said the increase in participation is because the dining environment is more inviting and people are responding favorably to the healthy choices. One of Kesselring’s biggest reservations was removing the deep-fat fryer. “This is the South,” she said. “I embraced the idea, but I was worried about the feedback.” Besides fried chicken, fish, fries, egg rolls and country fried steak were all cooked in the fryer. Instead of fried chicken, rotisserie chicken is now offered. About 240 servings of rotisserie chicken are sold each day. Before the renovation, about 75 servings of fried chicken were purchased each day.
“The whole concept was to make healthy things look good and taste good,” Kesselring said. “It doesn’t have to be with a sugar substitute or be salt free. Healthy food can be tremendous. That’s how we came up with this renovation. The No. 1 focus is healthy. It’s not just a pretty dining room.”