While the military has limited influence on altering national obesity trends, it does have an influence on what its service members are doing to stay healthy, a former defense official said during the 2019 Defense Communities National Summit in Washington.
“Everyone wants to do the right thing. Everyone wants to feed our troops healthier options,” Chuck Milam, former acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, said June 11.
By 2030, according to a report by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 60% of Americans will be obese, Army Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Becker, who heads Army Installation Management Command, told the summit.
That doesn’t bode well for the health of the nation, he said, particularly for youth, as obesity is a limiting factor for eligible to serve, he said.
But the services are looking for new ways to help troops access healthier eating options, officials said.
At the center of efforts to modernize dining on installations is changing the rules about where service members can use their meal entitlements to include military installation exchange restaurants; morale, welfare and recreation food venues and express convenience stores, Milam said.
Many service members receive an entitlement for three meals a day in dining facilities, but only use their meal cards for about half of their meals daily on average, he noted.
“They are going out of pocket outside the military dining facility to spend their own money,” Milam said. “Their entitlement isn’t being used.”
A college campus-dining model will optimize the meal entitlement program, said Tom Shull, director and CEO of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. It would be especially appealing to younger generations of soldiers and airmen who expect more choices and more locations for convenience, he said.
Besides a campus-dining model, Shull said options could include food truck delivery services that would get healthy eating choices out to where the troops are. Often, he said, troops find themselves on duties that take them away from a convenient dining facility. That’s one reason troops use grab-and-go to get food at the closest place.
Healthier choices are also being offered in the food courts and other areas, Shull said. “Subway, Boston Market, Qdoba — the list goes on. We are committed to making sure our restaurants offer meals that are nutritious and taste good,” he said.
They are going out of pocket outside the military dining facility to spend their own money. Their entitlement isn’t being used.”
Chuck Milam, former acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy
“In the future, efficiencies will be gained, and more healthy food will be more accessible and convenient,” Shull predicted. “The exchange is all-in. This will improve retention and benefit readiness and resiliency for warfighters and their families.”
“We have an obligation to support warfighters,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution.”
Air Force Lt. Gen. Jay B. Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy, said an eight-month-old Air Force Academy campus-dining pilot is already underway that allows cadets to access healthy eating choices at convenient places such as the bowling center, food courts and coffee shops.
“We need to partner with the exchange so cadets can go to an exchange restaurant, giving them choices and allowing them to use their entitlement,” Silveria said.
Test locations are being considered for the Army, as well.
“As IMCOM partners with Army [leadership], the commissary, the exchange and more, campus dining is the answer,” Becker said. “This will offer another option for our service members to use their meal cards and use the benefit they have to get healthy options without necessarily going to the dining facility.”
Navy Nutrition-Minded, Too
In an interview, Courtney L. Williams, a public affairs officer with the Navy Exchange Service Command, said NEXCOM offers a number of healthy eating initiatives outside of the mess halls. They include:
- Ships Store Afloat: healthy options aboard ship stores and vending machines.
- Student Meal Program: provides more 500,000 nutritious meals to DOD schools overseas.
- Retail stores on base: healthy options at its micro markets, vending machines, along with vitamin shops.
- Food courts: well-balanced, healthy meal choices at stores like Au Bon Pain, Noodles and Things, Salad Creations and Jason’s Deli, with a registered dietitian/nutritionist providing evaluation and oversight.
The Marine Corps Exchange and the Coast Guard Exchange have similar programs, officials said.