Better Nutrition Efforts Fill the Army’s Plate

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Everything is on the table in the Army’s efforts to help soldiers eat better, perform better and feel better now while potentially trimming billions of dollars in future health-care costs.

The budget reduction potential goes like this: The healthier soldiers are, the less they will cost the military health-care system while they are in service, and fewer health-care costs will be incurred in retirement because they have led good dietary lifestyles. In light of the current budget restrictions, however, the funding investment that the Army can make to incorporate better nutrition gets a middling grade.

“Money really limits some of the things that would absolutely be wonderful to do, but there is a very real budget that we are constrained by,” said Priscilla A. Dolloff-Crane, who leads the Army’s menu and nutrition efforts on the Subsistence side of the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence (JCCoE) Operations Directorate, located at Fort Lee, Va. “There are great products out there, but they cost three to five times more than the standard competitive product, which means we can’t roll them out until the price comes down.” She added, “As far as the budget affects ongoing nutrition efforts, given the budget right now, we’re in the midrange. We’ve got sufficient money to not ‘do bad’—but we’re not yet to the point where we can do the optimal.”

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Instructors at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence, Fort Lee, Va., teach the basic Army culinary specialist course.

The Army’s institutional efforts toward achieving better nutrition employ soldier education programs, revamped menus, more healthful preparation methods and wise-choice food line presentation in the Army’s dining facilities, all of which are overt methods. The efforts also include a range of covert, sneaky ways to influence soldiers toward making better food choices—in some cases changing ingredients or cooking methods for the bad choices that soldiers could make, decreasing unhealthful properties (at least) without diners even realizing it, and making them satisfied and happy in the bargain.

‘Stealth Health’

In the secretive jargon of nutritionists, it is called stealth health. Take, for example, the old-school, lard-laden, boiled hot dogs that were a staple for decades. They have disappeared from Army serving lines. Sure, soldiers might still be able to chow down on a couple of hot dogs, but the meat has been fat-stripped to an extent, with chicken added to replace traditional hog parts and a combination of spices thrown into the mix (menu-laboratory-concocted and test-group-approved) to make the new Army hot dog taste like a soldier expects. The bun could even be more whole grain than white flour. Chili and cheese on that?—lower fat content.

Fort Lee Dining

Soldiers dine at Fort Lee.

It is the same with hamburger patties—better beef and lower fat content (to the chagrin of the bean counters in the defense supply system who see only dollar signs, but something that Army menu planners have succeeded in advocating).

What about that Army breakfast tradition—sausage gravy on biscuits or toast? (It has an unflattering, commonly known term in the military that we are avoiding here.) Today, the meat is baked; fat is drained; gravy has gone more whole-grain and so have the biscuits; and nobody (hopefully) knows the difference.

Portions, in some cases, have been reduced for less healthful (and more budget-costly) entrees like pork chops. You get one pork chop these days, not two; however, you can get practically all the vegetable dishes your plate can hold, along with fruit and salad items.

Stealthy influencers appear all through the Army’s modernized model serving line. Vegetables are prominent. Entrees appear in order of their healthful qualities—say, baked fish first, chicken with barbeque sauce on it second, and the fatty (and, remember, more costly) pork chops last. The theory is that as diners’ plates are filled with better food, they will forgo less healthful options that appear farther down the line because there is simply less physical room left on the plates to fill. Visually, they have “enough” and are satisfied. Manipulating hunger/eye/satisfaction perception is stealth health, too. Technically, though, it is called choice architecture.

Amid the Army’s better-diet initiatives, dining halls must remain competitive, vying against civilian eateries both on- and off-post as well as against the millions of dollars that big chain restaurants spend on advertising and brand establishment. (Nevertheless, approximately 162 million meals were served in permanent party dining halls during fiscal year 2013.)

A Balancing Act

Army dining facilities must achieve customer satisfaction to get return customers. This is why they cannot go overboard in restricting menus. It is a balancing act that weighs best practices with practicality. The dining halls need to get boots through the doors and serve individual dishes that are better for soldiers—while not having those dishes dumped in the trash because nobody likes them. Food waste reduction is a big part of Army cost reduction, too.

In the nutritionist’s view, however, customer satisfaction concerns have a frontier point: “If I serve you ice cream all the time, will you come in all the time? Sure, until I kill you,” Dolloff-Crane explained.

JCCoE is an element of U.S. Army Sustainment Command, which, in the larger sense, supplies, accounts for, transports and fixes almost everything the Army consumes or drives and trains the military specialists who do it. In addition to its Armywide food service administration functions, JCCoE facilitates and supports training courses for cooks from other services while directly training the Army’s food service personnel.

Army cooks are not called cooks nowadays, however, nor are they called food service specialists (to which the term cooks evolved within the Army). According to Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Grant, the JCCoE department sergeant major, they are called culinary specialists, encompassing much more training and expertise than ever before, including being part nutritionists and coaches, not just preparers.

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Soldiers make choices from the serving line at the Quartermaster School.

“Today, we should be seen as what we are—force multipliers, combat multipliers, important to commanders and the effectiveness of the unit,” said the sergeant major, who came into the Army’s food service field more than 29 years ago.

Especially refrain from using derogatory terms you might hear in an old war movie like spoon or cookie and the like in front of him.

“We deserve better if for no other reason than we provide an essential military capability: food,” Grant said, keeping with Napoleon’s view on how an army travels.

Today, Army culinary specialists receive the training and experience necessary to apply for and gain through the top U.S. civilian culinary organization increasing higher levels of professional certification. A spoon might have the equivalent of a culinary doctorate these days and can get civilian employment with those certifications when he or she retires or completes his or her term of service.

The program influencing food services throughout the Army today is the Soldier Fueling Initiative, announced in 2010 and tested at Fort Jackson, S.C., in facilities feeding soldiers in initial training. It now applies to facilities for all basic and advanced individual training.

The initiative was launched for simple and obvious reasons. An alarming percentage of young people (of recruiting age) in America are overweight, and the dominant reasons stem from poor dietary habits and lack of exposure to more healthful alternatives. The Army decided to show them a better way by cleaning up its own act, providing them with better dietary choices with some restrictive elements. For example, sodas disappeared from the fountain dispensers and were replaced by water, sports drinks and juices. In addition, nutrition education became part of soldiers’ training.

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Color-coded labels on serving lines show nutritional value under the Army’s Go for Green program, which uses standard traffic signal colors.

Food is Fuel

The “fueling” in the initiative was selected to impart the lifestyle outlook that food is fuel—fuel to increase soldiers’ physical performance. In the sense of self, it is fuel to increase one’s physical fitness score, fuel to get promoted and do better in the Army, better in life—fuel to succeed.

Major elements of the initiative are proliferating into all of the Army’s facilities through the Go for Green program and among the ranks through the Soldier Athlete program and various nutrition education programs. All have evolved to be incorporated into the Army’s overarching Ready and Resilient Campaign.

The most obvious part of the Go for Green program is labeling. It uses the red/yellow/green traffic light system. Each dish now has a tag above it with that universal code—green to indicate that it is good for you, yellow for not so good but not that bad, and red to cause a soldier to think about it before choosing it. Coinciding training shows why soldiers should, as the name states, go for green.

Permanent party dining halls have yet to institute SFI’s outright soda ban, but healthful alternatives are prominent. Someday, sugary sodas could disappear, but the view now is to treat the situation with education and alternatives and err toward customer satisfaction.

The Soldier Athlete program incorporates physical exercise aspects with diet, shifting soldiers’ attitudes toward thinking about themselves as athletes and fueling themselves as such.

The Army is currently reviewing its hundreds of menu items, primarily to study their nutritional properties, and widespread changes could result as the Army looks to further reduce universal culprits such as trans fats, sugar and one of the biggest health villains—salt. Doing so would improve overall nutrition while perhaps also reducing costs for direct purchase, preparation and serving. The idea is to bring a better diet to soldiers while achieving good value.

According to Dolloff-Crane, a particular seed group could be part of the solution—a vastly more nutritional product in terms of the benefits that it possesses and the bad elements that it lacks, such as trans fats, gluten and the like. It can be used for any food product in which traditional grains currently are used in the American diet. It is relatively cheap, and Dolloff-Crane offered assurances that it tastes delicious.

Congress and the power of law, however, are standing in the way. The impediment is the Berry Amendment’s “buy American” restrictions that initially were placed on the U.S. military in World War II but stayed on the books until becoming an entrenched part of the U.S. Code in 2009.

The seed in question is quinoa (a close pronunciation is keen-wah), and the problem, of course, is that it is not grown in the United States in commercial quantities. Production centers in the Andes region of South America. Quinoa has become a boutique darling of the American ultra-exotic-good-food set despite being a cousin of the unappetizing tumbleweed.

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And Then They Say Eat MORE

Soldiers said they need additional calories in highly demanding situations, so the Army developed the Modular Operational Ration Enhancement (MORE).

Soldiers reported that they were losing excessive weight when eating normal daily operational rations during physically stressful missions, especially when operating at high altitudes and in extremely cold conditions, so researchers developed the family of MORE rations to supplement Meals Ready to Eat (MREs); First Strike Rations; Meals, Cold Weather/Food Packet, Long Range Patrol; and the family of Unitized Group Rations. Soldiers need 4,500 to 6,000 calories per day under some circumstances.

One MRE provides about 1,300 calories. A MORE boosts it by about 1,110 calories.

Currently, there are two types of MOREs: one for hot weather and one for high altitude and cold weather. Each type has three different varieties. For high-altitude/cold environments, MORE has a balanced mix of carbohydrates, caffeine, electrolytes and vitamins, a blend that also helps soldiers overcome mountain sickness. Hydration is important in hot weather, so for that environment, each MORE has extra beverage mixes that are high in carbohydrates and electrolytes.

Each densely packed MORE weighs about 12 ounces.


MORE packages contain items including caffeinated pudding, carbohydrate-enhanced beverage mixes, First Strike bars and Zapplesauce, a fortified applesauce. (U.S. Army/David Kamm)

Quinoa is not just for hippies these days, though. Its health qualities are so great that the broad band of traditional nutritionists quickly embraced it, and military nutritionists followed suit. Figuring a way to get quinoa into the dining facility is somewhat of a cause, and work-arounds like finding acceptable blending levels with American grains continue to be explored.

Dolloff-Crane is quinoa’s biggest fan, and she is probably the going-through-the-chow-line soldier’s best friend. She directs traffic at the crossroad of Army nutrition. She maintains liaison with upper-level nutrition committees, which set standards that parallel national nutrition goals. She is also keeping communication and information-sharing channels open with other services and the food research and development side while communicating down the line to menu boards at local installation levels and receiving their reports for consolidation.

She is a realist. “Some days, anybody’s going to have that comfort food, but the choice should be with eyes wide open,” Dolloff-Crane said. “It’s like bungee jumping. You shouldn’t do it often, and you should know the risks.”

Dolloff-Crane tries to solve the systemic problems standing between soldiers and a good, enjoyable, nutritional meal in a pleasant atmosphere, balanced with what the Army can spend. That is her job, but she cares—truly cares—about soldiers, their diets and overall Army food satisfaction, calling them “my diners” or “my clients” and explaining that “what we do to and for you is really important, and we want to be effective in preparing and serving a meal.”

To Dolloff-Crane, dining facilities are not just places that put food on plates. They accommodate important soldier needs such as being places to gather, unwind and reduce the day’s stress; however, she oversimplifies how meals are produced, something she can do because she is so familiar and comfortable with the process—like a winning NASCAR driver saying, “You hit the starter, floor the pedal and stay off the wall.”

Army food service, she said, “is like building a tank on a daily basis. You just need the parts and someone who knows what to do with a screwdriver.”

It is far more complex.