Hundreds of soldiers at Fort Liberty, North Carolina got a taste of some of the new devices and plans the Army is working on to keep them fed.

“We’re going to revolutionize how we feed our soldiers,” Sgt Maj. Kelvin Windham, Army Materiel Command G-4 sergeant major, a 92G culinary specialist who works with the Food Innovation and Transformation team said in an Army release.

Army officials like Windham have gone on a tour of U.S. military bases around the world to learn how to transform how the Army delivers food to best suit soldiers’ lifestyles and missions. The modernization plan is focused on making  meals more convenient while emphasizing nutritious food.

“In this business, your nutrition drives your lethality. If we’re not giving our soldiers proper nutrition or getting them into the building to get these nutritionist meals, we’re kind of risking our lethality,” Windham told Task & Purpose.

In late April, about 700 soldiers at Fort Liberty and their families got to see some of the innovations that the Army is eyeing to operate campus-style dining. Patterning food service at colleges and universities makes sense, Windam said, because “that’s primarily the same demographic of 18-to-24-year-olds.” 

For example, many colleges and universities have “action stations,” where cooks make the food right there in front of the student, somewhat like a chipotle-style ordering station, Windham said. “When people are involved with their food, they feel like they’re part of that process of the food.”

The Army is also looking to increase the number of soldiers who use base dining facilities, or DFACs, since utilization rates have fallen below 65%.

One of the ideas that the Army is mulling is “how we even change the ambience inside of the DFAC,” Windham said, like adding couches, televisions or even wifi access “to attract the soldiers to come in.”

Bringing food to the soldiers

After speaking to soldiers across a variety of bases, officials found a common theme: young soldiers wanted the flexibility of eating their meals outside of the typical meal hours at dining halls.

“Some soldiers, they get off work at 5 p.m., they don’t wanna go straight to the DFAC, they wanna go to the gym, relax a little bit and then get their meal as opposed to just going to normal meal hours,” Windham said.

CW 4 Shedrick Swain, the XVIII Airborne Corps’ Food Service Technician described one of the digital kiosks at the Fort Liberty showcase as an “iPad” display that “highlights all the eateries” as a directory of a given installation’s food options.

“It can also help with the educational piece of it for service members and family members eating and making the right choices to eat healthy,” Swain said. 

Some bases have turned to “culinary outpost kiosks” which have the appearance and function of a civilian convenience store but accept Basic Daily Food Allowance as payment. The price  will be the same as buying food from a DFAC so that a daily allowance still covers an entrée, a side, a dairy item, a beverage, a snack, and dessert, according to a release by Fort Cavazos. A kiosk outpost is planned to open at Fort Liberty in the coming weeks, according to Swain.

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While the kiosks are one step towards the Army’s modernization of the way it feeds soldiers, a veteran-run, Yelp-like app called Hots&Cots where troops can rate barracks and DFACs have received reports from two base kiosks – Fort Carson, Colorado and Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia – where of kiosks became fully barren.

Windham said two pieces of equipment were particularly well received. One was a vending machine where patrons could choose from a selection of hot meals like calzones, pasta, and jambalaya. One minute later, their meal was ready.

“It was amazing, especially because we’re looking at how do we meet Soldiers at the point of need with food that meets their schedules? And this machine could be a great way to do that,” Windham said.

Another innovation was a food locker system where soldiers could digitally pre-order meals. 

“You could potentially set this thing up in a barracks and work area anywhere. You can order a meal and it can be delivered and put into the food locker and the Soldier just goes and picks it up at the time that they had set,” Windham said in an Army release.

Food insecurity 

The event also aimed to address another issue affecting nearly 25% of the military: food insecurity. 

A Congressional report focused on quality of life released last month cited a 2023 RAND report which found one-fourth of all U.S. service members were found to be food insecure which is defined as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

RAND also found that food insecurity was most prevalent among early-to-mid-career enlisted personnel “single with children, married without children, or a racial or ethnic minority.” These service members were also disproportionately in the Army and to a lesser extent, in the Navy.

The issue of food insecurity may even affect retention rates, the Congressional report said, something that the Army is paying attention to as it faces its hardest recruiting environment in a generation.

The quality of life panel cited a Blue Star Family 2023 Military Family Life Survey which found that of active-duty families who reported ‘low or very low’ food security, 40% were unlikely to recommend military service to a young family member while 26% of active-duty respondents with ‘moderate to high’ food security were less likely to recommend service.

The Congressional report highlighted several efforts across the Army to expand food availability to soldiers like 24-hour self-service kiosks, mass transit to DFACs and meal card access across bases for DFACs restaurants and commissaries with a pilot project at Fort Liberty. 

Despite the handful of initiatives, the Congressional panel said it was concerned that the DOD “lacks a cohesive plan to combat the reported high rate of food insecurity across the force.”

At the Fort Liberty event, soldiers and their family members received meal prep guidance, as well as advice on food security and budgetary coaching from financial readiness counselors, according to the Army release. Representatives from private companies also showed soldiers how to prepare meals and follow recipes that focused on repurposing leftovers which Windham described as being able to “save a family a lot of money during the course of a month.”

“It kind of showed those Soldiers and their family members, hey, if you’re on a budget, these are some recipes you can cook to stay within your budget and this is how you can stretch meals out but still get that great nutritional value for you and your family,” he added.

When it comes to proper nutrition, one of the changes, Windham said, is that the Army is going to prioritize buying fresh vegetables over canned goods to feed soldiers. Windham said the costs for fresh produce will be offset by the Army’s plan to increase soldier utilization at DFACs.

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