Airmen chow down in the dining hall at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. The Defense Department is in the midst of an initiative to provide healthier eating choices on military installations. (Kemberly Groue/Air Force)
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Concerns about the comparative scarcity of healthy food choices on military installations have led defense officials to launch a comprehensive study of dining facilities, fast food and vending machine options, according to Defense Department officials.
Those concerns surfaced in early findings of DoD’s Healthy Base Initiative, a demonstration project of 14 sites launched 15 months ago, aimed at enhancing the health of troops, civilians and family members.
A number of factors “have led me to believe that we have a problem with food in DoD,” said Charles Milam, principal director for military family and community policy, at a June 24 congressional caucus and public policy forum held by the American Logistics Association.
Milam has asked a team to look at the food situation on military installations “and provide me a baseline. I want to see how much of a problem we have.”
Based on the early HBI findings, Milam acknowledged that DoD must “fix food. We have to make fitness more accessible, and we have to make changes with tobacco.”
DoD is conducting a review of all aspects of tobacco on military installations.
As part of the HBI, officials rated the 14 installations in the demonstration project on their dining facilities, fast food eateries, commissaries, convenience stores and vending machines, using DoD’s Military Nutrition Environment Assessment Tool, which helps health promotion professionals, commanding officers and others measure accessibility to healthy food options.
On a 100-point scale, dining facilities scored 82 and commissaries 88. But fast food outlets rated only 38; convenience stores, 36; and vending machines, 17.
While dining facilities offer some healthy choices, there are still concerns in that area, Milam said.
“Due to budgetary constraints and cutbacks, we’ve closed many dining facilities. For those that we haven’t closed, we’re finding many that have reduced hours,” Milam said.
Air Force officials, for example, reported that some of their dining facilities are open only 35 to 40 hours a week.
On some installations, service members essentially live on vending machines, Milam said. “We have some work to do in that area as well,” he said, noting that “this isn’t about eradicating fast food — this is about providing choices.”
The Healthy Base Initiative is not just an awareness program or marketing campaign, Milam said. Officials are pulling together the right data, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work, so they can put the right programs into place to help installations.
Col. Brian Foley, garrison commander at Fort Meade, Maryland, which is one of the HBI pilot sites, said there was some “trepidation” at first about whether the program would provide good ideas — but not the resources to implement them.
But he said the project team has followed through with resources and has shown post officials how they can make potentially large changes with a relatively small amount of dollars.
For example, Fort Meade has opened one of its fitness facilities 24 hours a day, with controlled access and security cameras. And chefs from the Culinary Institute of America have visited the post’s dining facilities to demonstrate some “ways to cook healthier food that tastes good,” Foley said.
In a related effort, a wellness center has opened at Fort Meade with contracted health education professionals who do lifestyle and body assessments such as measuring body fat percentages, and then provide a personalized health improvement plan — such as help for quitting smoking and exercise plans. Since the center opened last fall, 4,400 people have gone through and gotten their personalized plans.
In addition, Foley said he has a “great partnership” with commissary and exchange officials on post. The commissary periodically holds its own farmers market with fresh produce placed out front, and the exchange shoppette has moved its fresh fruit to the front of the store.
Noting that some installations do extremely well in offering healthy food choices while others are doing poorly, Milam said the overarching goal is for every military installation to have choices of healthy places to eat. “I don’t think that’s asking too much,” he said.