The Army is planning to retool the way it feeds soldiers, as it adjusts to a shrinking force, an uncertain budget, and growing competition that's luring soldiers away from base "chow halls."
An order to local commanders outlining the plans estimates that at least 14 of the 190 Army dining facilities worldwide would close, and at least 45 more would get smaller.
The Army says it wants to make the chow halls more attractive to soldiers, but it's also trying to achieve two other goals that might seem to run counter to the first: It wants to save money and make the food more nutritious.
"We must have a product that provides healthy and likable food choices, that provides better service, and is the soldier's preferred choice," said Michael Williams, a senior civilian in Army logistics at the Pentagon who is helping lead the makeover.
The order outlining the changes, like the soldiers themselves these days, calls chow halls by the acronym DFACs, short for "dining facilities."
"Garrison food service operations have not been updated or modernized to account for changing soldier demographics, satisfy soldier desire for selection/taste or nutritional requirements (to support soldier mission performance), or meet commander requirements," says the order, which the Army sent to commanders in August.
"As a result DFAC utilization has declined sharply and DFAC costs are now the major installation logistics cost driver," it said.
Commanders were due to report back to the Pentagon in November with specific information to help Army leaders fashion the retooling plan. It likely will be several months before changes begin.
A key part of the plan involves creating options such as grab-and-go stores, kiosks, and even food trucks, with the aim of making Army food available to soldiers at the odd hours and places they sometimes work and train.
"We want to offer that soldier options when he or she only has a few minutes here, a few minutes there, when they're moving from one assignment or one task to another," Williams said.
What the Army doesn't want, he said, is for soldiers to get off duty late at night and feel like their only option is fast food.
Fewer troops, more choices
The Army announced this summer that it will shrink by 40,000 soldiers, down from the current 490,000, by 2019. It also will trim the number of civilian workers, who eat at DFACs.
Those personnel reductions are part of what's driving the chow hall cuts. But the order also says that as the Army trims costs, it will bring food service up to "a 21st century performance standard." The order notes that the Army has seen a drop in soldiers' DFAC use, though it contains no specific data.
In interviews, soldiers say that for variety, they often eat at local restaurants or cook for themselves.
Young soldiers living in the barracks eat at DFACs for free, while soldiers living off post have to pay for DFAC meals. Prices are low: $3.45 for breakfast and $5.55 for lunch.
But even those who are eligible for free meals sometimes prefer to pay for food elsewhere.
On a recent day at a Fort Bragg DFAC, Spc. Larry Thomas was in line for lunch. But he said he wouldn't be back for dinner. He prefers to cook at night in a shared barracks kitchen.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Michael Mueller said he'd probably grab a sandwich for dinner at Subway, one of several fast-food places that are popular with troops. More than a dozen chain restaurants such as McDonald's, Arby's, and Hardee's sit just outside Fort Bragg's gates. And increasingly, the Army has allowed chains like Pizza Hut, Burger King, and KFC to open locations right on post.
"On weekends, and at night, at Pizza Hut, it's just jammed with cars coming through," Thomas said of one of the on-post restaurants.
Promoting fitness in a fast-food world
All those soldiers headed for pizza represent a dilemma for the Army and a complication for the plan to revamp official Army food service on bases.
Like much of American society, it has been dealing with an increase in obesity and related health issues – a major impediment to its goal of preparing soldiers for the physical rigors of combat. In recent years, the military has begun to promote healthy eating -- at the same time that the Army has invited fast-food places onto bases.
"It certainly sounds like you're talking out of both sides of your mouth, doesn't it?" said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, now retired from the Army, and a member of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.
"But Installation Management Command can’t go into the red," he said, "and when people are demanding those kinds of things on post, unless America changes, the Army is a segment of America, so you kind of want to have the same things that America has."
When Hertling was appointed to lead the Army's basic training efforts in 2009, he quickly discovered some startling statistics: more than three quarters of Americans who wanted to join the Army didn't meet the standards to enlist, most because of obesity. Of those who did enlist, he said about 60 percent couldn't pass a fitness test on the first day of basic training: one minute each of pushups and sit-ups and a one-mile run.
Hertling and his staff created a program called the Soldier Athlete Initiative. A key part of it is training young recruits to eat better.
"What I'm looking for as a commander is what the soldiers need, not what they want," Hertling said, "and that's a hard psychology to sell to a bunch of 18 years olds who say, 'What the Hell are you talking about? I can perform as well on cheeseburgers.'"
"Well, no you can’t, really," Hertling said. "You’re going to wear out when you’ve got more fat than protein."
After the Solider Athlete Initiative hit its stride, he said, the Army started to see soldiers’ weight come down, muscle mass go up, and even their shooting skills improve.
Now the military has several initiatives to improve eating and fitness. On the DFAC serving lines are simple color-coded signs -- red, yellow and green -- to quickly tell soldiers what foods are more healthful.
Tomorrow's chow hall: sushi, kabobs, and a food truck
If the Army wants to pull more people back into the DFACs to give them healthy options, it could do a lot worse for a model than another DFAC at Fort Bragg, the one run by the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade.
It's the home of the special raspberry vinaigrette, the Mongolian grill, a sushi bar and hand-tossed salads to order.
"I did an Italian kebob last night, Italian soaked tomatoes, shrimp, tortellini, and I drizzled it with a lemon garlic sauce and sprinkled it with a little parsley," said Spc. Megan Gonzales.
Technically, she's an Army cook. But at this DFAC, they call them "chefs" as part of the effort to create a culture of professionalism and pride in the work.
This DFAC already has a grab-and-go area with its own entrance and extended hours. And it's planning a food truck with healthy options to send to places where the brigade's paratroopers work for long stretches. It will compete with trucks offering junk food.
It also does a lot of the same things as successful civilian restaurants. It creates signature dishes that generate word-of-mouth, holds special events, and tries to make diners feel almost like they're at home.
"When I lived in the barracks, I didn't want to eat at the dining facility that I worked at," Gonzales said. "The food wasn't good, there was no variety, it was plain to taste and usually cold."
"So here, we try to go the extra mile for the soldiers," she said. "We try to make it worth their while to come here and eat with us."
Gonzales' dining hall has even made progress addressing one of the biggest challenges for Army DFACs – attracting a crowd on nights and weekends, when civilians who work on base aren’t around, and soldiers who live off post often don’t want to come back for another DFAC meal.
But 2nd Brigade doesn’t serve just another meal. On Sundays, it hosts a "miniature Thanksgiving," which on one recent weekend attracted 800 people.
The more often that soldiers come in the DFAC, the greater shot Gonzales has influencing what they eat – even though not everything on her menu would be considered healthy.
"We're competing with Pizza Hut, so we offer the unhealthier options," Gonzales says. "But at the same time, you can have one slice of pizza and some fish and you can just balance it out."
Her DFAC also shows a feature movie every day, prints out recipes for soldiers, and actively seeks their feedback with comment cards.
"We're trying to change the way that everyone perceives DFACs," Gonzales said. "We want then to see us as a restaurant and not just a chow hall."
This story is a part of the American Homefront Project — a joint effort of KPCC, KUOW and WUNC — reporting on American military life and veterans.