Brig. Gen. David Gardner, commander of Fort Polk, La., and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth speak with Sgt. Edward Peralta in his barracks room at the base April 25, 2023. When asked about dining facilities, Peralta told Wormuth he prefers to cook his own meals so he can have control over his nutrition.

Brig. Gen. David Gardner, commander of Fort Polk, La., and Army Secretary Christine Wormuth speak with Sgt. Edward Peralta in his barracks room at the base April 25, 2023. When asked about dining facilities, Peralta told Wormuth he prefers to cook his own meals so he can have control over his nutrition. (Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes)

Five Army bases could soon have private companies instead of soldiers serving food in dining facilities through a new pilot program that aims to completely overhaul the way the service feeds troops in garrisons.

The hope is to take an approach similar to college campuses and offer brands that have healthy options and are recognizable to young people, such as Panera Bread or Chick-fil-A, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said during a January town hall at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii.

“We're trying to be creative,” she told the soldiers about improving the dining-facility experience. “We're looking at how to make our warrior restaurants more attractive and more accessible to our soldiers.”

Companies can bid on the contract until May 2, according to the federal government’s award management website. The proposal lists future locations for the pilot program as Fort Drum, N.Y., Fort Carson, Colo., Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Stewart, Ga., and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.

It asks companies to be responsible for renovating the dining facility to meet the company’s needs, use a sales system that allows soldiers to pay with their basic allowance for subsistence meal card, and offer food that meets the nutrition standards of the service. Hours of operation should go beyond what dining facility schedules maintain now to meet the needs of the community, according to the online request for business proposals.

The Army Materiel Command, which is responsible for the pilot program, declined to comment on the plans because it’s too early in the process. However, Col. Geoff Kent, who is leading the program, said in a presentation posted online that the plans hang on bringing in the right experts from the restaurant industry.

“There's an element of purpose over profit,” he said. “This is to affect the quality of life, it's the recruiting, it's the retention, food insecurity [and] issues of obesity.”

Soldiers have long complained about dining facilities – everything from the taste and variety of food to the operation hours. Instead, soldiers end up spending money from their own pockets on fast food or whatever is available at the nearest convenience store. Some of them just prefer to cook in the small kitchens found in most barracks rooms.

“I like being in control,” Sgt. Edward Peralta told Wormuth on Tuesday when she visited his barracks room during a tour of Fort Polk, La. “I tell soldiers to go get an air fryer.”

Brig. Gen. David Gardner, commander of Fort Polk, said he would love to see the Army allow soldiers to use the roughly $450 monthly subsistence allowance at the commissary as well as the dining facility. Then, if they prefer to cook, they don’t lose the money.

Wormuth said she didn’t like the idea of giving the money back to soldiers to spend. Too much can go wrong in an organization so large, she said.

“We have a responsibility to make sure that our soldiers are fed and housed,” Wormuth said. “The warrior restaurants, I think, are a nice hybrid that tries to give them more choice [and] better hours.”

But the pilot program has hit some snags related to nonappropriated funds and minor construction, she said. The Army is still committed to the project and seeing some bases test the new concept.

To design the Army pilot program, service officials visited Louisiana State University, Duke University and the University of Alabama to see how their athletic programs feed athletes through campus dining facilities, Kent said in his presentation.

The Army also reviewed the Air Force’s new approach toward campus-style feeding. The Air Force uses a mix of contracted industry experts and airmen to work in 43 dining facilities at 27 bases. Food is prepared upon ordering, and the facilities remain open between meal times to sell grab-and-go options.

Kent said the Army’s new facilities must be fast, casual environments with menus informed by nutritionists and dieticians and prepared using healthy methods. Kent also envisioned technology playing a role with soldiers -- being able to order in advance on a smartphone app and information that can help them pick meals based on their own fitness goals and then track their caloric and nutritional intake.

Officials at Fort Bragg have already begun trying some of these changes through the culinary expertise that already exists within the Army. Warrior restaurants at the North Carolina base already offer carry-out meals that are designed to be reheated and labeled based on fitness goals, said Command Sgt. Maj. T.J. Holland, the top enlisted soldier of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.

Soldiers can come in for breakfast and pick up preordered meals in microwave-safe containers to take back to their barracks room for lunch or dinner, he said. It’s all paid for through a soldier’s meal card.

The changes have doubled the number of soldiers eating at some base facilities, Holland said.

“We can only make so many every day, and we're getting sold out across Fort Bragg at every place,” he said. “[Soldiers] can still have a cheat day, but I wanted to give them a hard reason not to want to eat healthy today.”

Holland said his favorite carry-out meal included asparagus and sweet potato with beef and a fruit cup on the side.

However, the new concept does have its limitations because it’s operated by soldiers and feeding troops on training assignments and deployments takes priority. The dining facility of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division is closed now because the culinary unit that manages it is training at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk.

“I don't think I go 48 hours without someone making a comment about dining options as far as after-hours for soldiers and families, but also they want more healthier options, more variety,” Holland said. “They like what's on here now, but they want more variety.”

He also said it was premature for him to talk about the pilot program that is projected to takeover at least one facility at Fort Bragg. However, he noted the Army’s force structure plan for 2030 decreases the number of cooks in the service.

“If we want to organize ourselves to how we expect to fight in 2030, then we're going to have to do something different about who manages our warrior restaurants,” Holland said. “If we're happy with what we've done and what we’ve worked on thus far, and we want to continue this experience, then we need to maintain the size of that specific [military occupational specialty] to support not just the warfighting and the training mission, but also the garrison experience as well.”

Twitter: @Rose_Lori

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Rose L. Thayer is based in Austin, Texas, and she has been covering the western region of the continental U.S. for Stars and Stripes since 2018. Before that she was a reporter for Killeen Daily Herald and a freelance journalist for publications including The Alcalde, Texas Highways and the Austin American-Statesman. She is the spouse of an Army veteran and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism. Her awards include a 2021 Society of Professional Journalists Washington Dateline Award and an Honorable Mention from the Military Reporters and Editors Association for her coverage of crime at Fort Hood.

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