As a member of the armed services, my boyfriend is entitled to shop for food at the commissary on our local military base in New York. Right next to the commissary is the PX, or “Post Exchange,” where we can buy every day necessities, books, and military supplies at a discounted price. Between the two services, military personnel can buy all that they need without leaving the base. The PX also houses a few private eateries and business, such as Burger King and GNC, where the store’s slogan, “Live well,” frames displays of nutritional supplements. The open, tiled space of the PX looks more than a little like a food court, an effect that will only be enhanced by the installation of another fast food franchise in the next year. Burger King’s tables spill out into the lobby, and the glowing menu sign above the counter warmly invites its customers to partake in a Whopper or a Dutch apple pie.
Are patrons supposed to enjoy their Whopper value meal and then attempt to undo the damage with some vitamins and powders from the King’s neighbor? This Burger King and that GNC represent two aspects of military food culture constantly at odds with each other: The need for culinary comfort in a stressful job environment and the attitude that treats the soldier’s body as a high-performance machine that requires precisely the right fuel. It’s hard to find a middle ground, at least here in the PX. But what about elsewhere on post? The commissary should offer the healthy-eating options lacking at a Burger King or a Taco Bell.
The commissary system provides a valuable service to soldiers, catering to large families, a number of different tastes and diets, and even a wide variety of ethnic foods. Although the commissaries offer military personnel food that is often cheaper than that sold by their civilian counterparts, we normally get the bulk of our groceries elsewhere. One reason for our avoidance of the commissary is that I have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder which causes a variety of symptoms when I digest gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye and is present in many of the processed foods filling the commissary. Absent is the organic or “natural” section which has sprouted up in many mainstream supermarket chains on which I normally depend for gluten-free products.
On my first trip to the commissary, I didn’t expect an abundance of gluten-free options–after all, celiac disease disqualifies applicants from serving. However, I was surprised at what I did find: Sodium-filled, processed food, and lots of it.
Taken separately, a few family value packs of Hot Pockets and a few (dozen) varieties of frozen pizza are merely another snapshot of American life. What major city is without a set of golden arches? Taken together, however, the food options offered on military bases throughout the United States and across the globe paint a rather stark picture of how we truly treat our men and women in uniform.
Part of the problem facing the military food system is the problem facing the world as a whole: How to feed more people than ever before. An Army Times article quotes Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) spokesman Judd Anstey as saying, “The exchange [PX] works with market leaders that have the capabilities to provide services on a global level,” and that, “Unfortunately, some chains are unable to support an operations tempo that may call for a restaurant at Fort Bragg today, Korea tomorrow, or even Afghanistan next week. With that said, the exchange works aggressively with brand partners of all sizes to bring their products to these diverse locations and provide a taste of home to troops.”
It’s undoubtedly true. Soldiers spend about $313 million annually on fast food, so military contracts equal success for these captains of food industry. If any food were to successfully survive a trip across the Atlantic to far-off battlefields, it would certainly be the supernaturally resilient Hot Pocket.
The intersection between the United States Army and food policy has spent some time in the spotlight in recent years, particularly by way of the Mission: Readiness Report which states that 75 percent of people aged 17 to 24 are too overweight to enlist. The report has done valuable work by increasing focus on the connections between national health and national security, as well as on the unhealthy school lunches that are part of the problem. And those who are already serving? As true representatives of the citizens they defend, these soldiers eat the same food that is fattening the rest of America.
Another set of changes in Army food policy has come from the Soldier Fueling Initiative, a program implemented in the past year, which treats soldiers as athletes requiring the proper balance of nutrients. This program, which made significant changes to menus and vending machines, is “limited to basic and advance training sites—installations where Army brass has the most control over its soldiers’ behavior,” according to an article in the Army Times. Limited in its scope, the program is also coded in the only nutritional language the army is fluent in (that of fueling and performance), a language that promotes a utilitarian and often simplified view of the properties of food.
So perhaps, in looking for a solution to these issues, we should not look forward to more “initiatives,” but backward instead. In the 1780s, George Washington’s Army Surgeon General, Dr. Benjamin Rush, noted, “[A] greater proportion of men have perished with sickness in our armies than have fallen by the sword… The diet of soldiers should consist chiefly of vegetables. The nature of their duty as well as their former habits of life, require it.”
It seems that a return to Dr. Rush’s prescription would, in many ways, do more to honor these men and women’s service than a wave of the American flag and a “Thank you for your service.” As with the society it defends, the American military deserves fresh, whole foods and, perhaps more importantly, the educational programs to healthily feed themselves and their families.