A few years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing Army Staff Sergeant Guy Winks, who is a professionally trained Army chef and held the proud distinction that he had fed hundreds and thousands of his fellow soldiers through basic training, and a number of overseas conflicts. From my conversation with Staff Sergeant Winks, I learned a great number of facts about what it entails to cook around the clock for hungry troops out in the field, as well as learning a few little known facts about what these troops are eating. According to Winks, some of the older officers (when given the choice) prefer the standard meat and potatoes kind of fare, similar to what you might expect to find on an average American dinner table. However, younger recruits, according to Winks, much prefer foods that reflect more of a fast-food taste, like hot dogs, pizza and an assortment of fried foods. While not a total surprise, I was pretty astounded that, when given the choice, young Army recruits can, and will, subsist on nothing but fast food through basic training, and into combat and occupation. Is this really a winning military strategy?
Evidently not. A great article, written by Kristan Hinman for Slate.com, on the subject of unhealthy military food options explores the current deplorable state for military nutrition, and what nutritional reformist are trying to do to rectify the problem. At this point, 1,200 overweight enlistees are discharged each year from the military because they are simply too fat or out of shape. A 2004 report estimated that 16 percent of all active-duty military are obese, and a report from the same year by the defense department determined that 80 percent of male military retirees and dependents are overweight, and 33 percent are obese. And why is this the case (probably not due to a sedentary lifestyle)? Most likely it may have something to do with the current menu offerings being dished out in mess halls, which are arranged like a buffet-style food court, around the world. Take for example the following information from Hinman’s article regarding Army food offerings:
“Its food program mandates that soldiers have access to eggs-made-to-order, three types of bread, three types of meat, six kinds of cereal, no fewer than one potato dish, and at least one pastry at breakfast alone. At least two hot entrees, with one sauce or gravy, must be offered at lunch and dinner, along with a deli bar featuring three types of meat; a short-order grill with four items; “two additional hot short-order entrees (pizza, fried chicken, and so forth)”; French fries; onion rings; assorted chips and pretzels, and at least four desserts. These are minimum standards. The Marine Corps is much the same. Chocolate milk is mandated at every Marine meal, and four types of soda must flow at lunch and dinner. ”
There is a new initiative, dubbed “Soldier Athlete” that is being put into place as a sort of restructuring and revision of the existing military food program. This program bans soda, refined grains, and fried foods in favor of healthier options such as low-fat milk, whole grains, and veggie wraps, as well as phases out certain dessert options, like cookies and cakes. Other, healthier, food options are pushed through a labeling system, titled “Go for Green,” that is supposed to direct the enlisted toward the veggies, rather than the Ding Dongs (good luck with that one).
Like the school lunch program and the dismal state of hospital food, it is hardly a surprise that the foods routinely fed to the men and women of the military are sufficiently lacking, in so many ways. It is hard to really have an inordinate amount of faith in the power of initiatives like “Soldier Athlete” (a program that likens the soldier to an athlete in training, and not just a receptacle for 3,250 calories of processed food per day), but it is encouraging that the military, which is not an organization known for their willingness to make sweeping changes, is at least taking a stab at nutritional reform.
*Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images AsiaPac