By Beth Reece
Special to American Forces Press Service
May 12, 2009 - From Mongolian barbecues hosted aboard Navy ships at sea to lobster tails served in the middle of the desert in Iraq, military provisions have come a long way from C-rations packed in tin cans. "Years ago, customers didn't have many choices in the food they received," said Tom Daley, director of subsistence supplier operations at the Defense Logistics Agency's Defense Supply Center Philadelphia.
A dining facility manager who ordered ketchup, for example, got a generic brand made according to Defense Department specifications. And when troops needed field rations to hold them through the first 72 hours of a conflict, they got standard rations known as Meals, Ready to Eat.
Customers ordering food and rations from DSCP now have better options, Daley said, from popular American brands such as Heinz and Sara Lee to self-heating meals called Unitized Group Rations.
"The two big differences are that we now rely more on industry to provide products, and the quality of food has improved," Daley said. "Customer satisfaction has increased tremendously."
Prices are good, too, said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brian Tucker, dining facility manager for 56th Services Squadron food service at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
"The Defense Supply Center Philadelphia keeps the prices low for our airmen," he said. "And that helps us to accomplish our mission: to feed the airmen in the dorms and keep them from having to go off base to eat."
The Subsistence Prime Vendor Program is directly responsible for customers' high ratings, Daley said. After years of using government depots to store and ship food to military facilities, subsistence experts began noticing after the first Gulf War how commercial food-service distributors procured, stored and shipped items to restaurants and supermarkets throughout America.
"A light bulb went on here at Philly, and we said, 'Why not just get out of the depot business and allow those guys to deliver direct for us, too?'" Daley said.
The prime-vendor approach began in 1994, instantly saving money by reducing storage requirements and spoilage costs for the entire Defense Department. Today, DSCP works with 50 prime vendors who manage and supply food in regions throughout the world.
Dining facility managers order from prime vendors on Mondays for Wednesday deliveries and on Wednesdays for Friday deliveries. The two-day turnaround works well for dining facilities that have little storage space, Daley said, and most vendors also accept last-minute emergency orders.
Depending on their locations, dining facility managers can choose from 700 to 50,000 items from vendor catalogs that are updated weekly.
"A lot of people think that we -- DSCP or DLA -- control the menus in dining facilities, but dining facility managers decide with dieticians what's good and what's healthy for the troops. We just provide the stock with the help of our vendors," said John Sheehan, chief of DSCP's garrison feeding division.
Prime vendors must comply with food safety and handling regulations mandated by the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department. To ensure they do, DSCP occasionally pulls products from the shelves for quality checks.
"We'll actually go out to a prime vendor facility and take a cut of meat to inspect it," Sheehan said.
Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were the first conflicts to test prime vendors' ability to support troops in combat. Most of the food DSCP provides in Southwest Asia is ordered from the United States by prime vendors located in theater.
"But in Iraq and Afghanistan, we buy a lot of local market stuff, like produce, milk and some bakery products that make sense to get locally," Daley said.
Center employees also deploy to the battlefield to establish local vendor relationships.
"We constantly have people deployed. They make sure that the forward operating bases and dining facilities have what they need," Daley said.
For troops who can't get to a dining facility, DSCP provides field rations, the only food product still made according to government specifications.
Individual rations include MREs and the newer First Strike Rations. MREs come in 24 varieties and contain about 1,250 calories. DSCP also provides Kosher MREs, cold-weather MREs and Alternative Regionally Customized Meals, which are vegetarian rations for detainees at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Designed for troops in the first 72 hours of deployment, First Strike Rations contain 2,900 calories and are half the weight and size of MREs, although each ration equals three meals. They have more carbohydrates, less packaging and require no preparation, utensils or cleanup.
"They're meant for a soldier on the go -- someone who is going to be burning up a lot of calories," Sheehan said.
Unitized Group Rations give on-the-move troops with field kitchens the opportunity for a hot meal. These heat-and-serve rations can be prepared quickly and contain a main course, side dishes, dessert, drink mixes and other ingredients. With seven breakfast and 14 lunch and dinner menus, UGRs can feed 50 people.
Whether troops are stationed in Afghanistan, South Korea or Fort Bragg, N.C., they can expect DSCP to provide the best possible meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"Nobody is thinking about the holidays when we are," said Ray Miller, the center's director of subsistence.
DSCP's menu review board works with the military services as early as April to set holiday menus. Many ingredients are on hand at prime vendor locations by September, and bigger dining facilities start receiving high-volume items such as turkeys and large beef roasts in October.
"Putting together these meals is quite the challenge, especially for some of the bigger dining facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, where holiday meals are served all day to accommodate servicemembers working different shifts," Miller said.
For servicemembers stationed in remote areas without a dining facility, DSCP purchases special editions of the Unitized Group Ration.
With more than 300 employees making sure troops have fresh, quality meals at the best price – in dining facilities and in the field –the Philadelphia team is dedicated to feeding America's servicemembers, Daley said.
"We get letters all the time from Iraq and Afghanistan. Customers are constantly telling us that the food is just great," he said. "That's important to us."
(Beth Reece works at the Defense Logistics Agency public affairs office.)