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'Combat Cuisine' Improving for US Troops - 2002-05-29

It has long been acknowledged that an Army commander who fails to provide his troops with adequate food is paving the way to his own defeat, even without engaging an enemy. But U.S. military meals have long had a bad image. Defense officials are now improving combat cuisine.

First of all, let's be clear: Combat cuisine, while nutritious, is not at all comparable to the rich offerings of an exclusive French restaurant.

Gerald Darsch of the Pentagon's combat feeding program said, for one, military meals, while sharing much in common with the commercial food sector, are not delivered by tuxedoed waiters. "We throw stuff out of aircraft to get it to our customers" he said.

And while most restaurant meals are prepared from fresh materials acquired just a short time before being served, military meals must meet different criteria. Mr. Dasch said, "Our shelf-life requirements are a minimum of three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit and six months at 100 (degrees)."

Finally, while that expensive French meal may be prepared and served in luxurious settings, soldiers' meals can be distributed in muddy foxholes or frozen caves.

All in all, it is quite a challenge - particularly when the Pentagon has to take into account the fact that the front-line soldier may have to carry his or her own food together with a weapon and other military essentials. "We have to cram or stuff as many nutrients and as many calories into the smallest possible package that we can, for obvious reasons," Mr. Darsch continued.

Oh, and one more thing. While a restaurant may have to plan on serving, say, one hundred meals a day, the Pentagon has to plan for feeding hundreds-of-thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.

And that means creating a menu that is acceptable to a majority of warfighters - no small feat. Again, Mr. Darsch said, "If we're at home and we don't like what we have, we can run out to the local convenience store to grab it. If our warfighter doesn't like what we provided him and will not eat it, the chances of him jumping up out of the foxhole - or her - and running to a local convenience store is probably not a good thing."

But military food has until now never enjoyed a good reputation. To remedy that, planners launched a vigorous product improvement program for the MRE, the nickname for the military's so-called Meals-Ready-to-Eat. "What we have done," Mr. Darsch said, "and this is based on feedback from our customers, is we have eliminated all the mystery meats. All the no-name casseroles are gone."

So what is on the menu these days in the foxholes? Mr. Darsch said, "Seafood jambalaya, Jamaican pork chop, beef teriyaki. We have pasta with vegetables and tomato, we have a bean and rice burrito. We have a pasta with Alfredo sauce, beef ravioli, oriental chicken with Thai sauce."

Mr. Darsch's presentation at the Pentagon was accompanied by a taste-testing for defense reporters, one of whom was French and who offered me this assessment as he sampled an assortment of military meals.

French Reporter: Actually it's not too bad on the whole. I don't think I like the raviolis very much but the veal is OK, the rice is fine and this, what is this brown thing there? Hmmm. It's a bit indefinite but fairly good.

Alex Belida: Does it trouble you that you don't know what it was you were eating?

French Reporter: A little bit, yeah. It's chewy but it's a good consistency.

And at least it is food. The Pentagon has also been exploring the notion of meals-in-a-pill. But Mr. Darsch said that just isn't possible - not now.

Still, he discloses scientists are exploring a skin patch that could provide basic vitamins and minerals to help soldiers maintain high levels of mental and physical performance. He admits it is not designed to replace a turkey dinner. But he says it could help ensure that a warfighter returns from battle safely to eat an actual turkey dinner.