Chow halls still will feature many of your favorites — with modifications intended to make them healthier. For example, baked chicken and potatoes as opposed to fried chicken and french fries. (Army)
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Fit food hits vending ranks
The chow hall isn’t the only thing changing. Healthy choices will make up half of the snack items in Advanced Individual Training vending machines starting Nov. 1.
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which has 20,000 such vending machines, had already joined "Operation Be Fit" for a sustainable and healthy force, said senior business program manager Denise Gumbert. The endeavor emphasizes "Fit Pick" selections categorized by Agriculture Department guidelines as "35-10-35." That means the item has less than 35 percent calories from fat, less than 10 percent calories from saturated fat and less than 35 percent of total weight in sugar.
Fifteen percent of AAFES’ vending selections are Fit Pick, and represent 25 percent of purchases, Gumbert said. She attended the August summit and recommended that Initial Military Training more than triple the Fit Pick selections from 15 percent to 50 percent in command vending machines. But the 50/50 split was not enough for many panel members. They pushed for a higher ratio to help build healthy habits. AAFES quickly countered that choices always rest with consumers, and removing choices will only drive them elsewhere.
Gumbert pointed to a recent test at Fort Jackson, S.C., in which Fit Pick selections were increased to 50 percent, 75 percent and 100 percent of vending options. Healthy purchases increased from 25 percent to 42 percent when half the items were Fit Pick. But AAFES began to see a "substantial" decline in all sales when Fit Pick items filled more than half the slots.
Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Boudnik, of 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment, recommended a "performance box" vending machine filled with high-performance, supplemental and energy bars. The idea caught Gumbert’s attention, who pledged to launch a test site by year’s end.
Big changes are coming to hundreds of chow halls. Soda fountains will be replaced with milk and juices. Half of all vending machine snacks will be healthy. Short orders will be cut back. Fried foods are out, and baked foods are in.
The changes are taking place at basic training and most of the 217 advanced schools. But don't be surprised if the chow hall overhaul also happens on your post, as big Army is thinking about making the changes Armywide.
"U.S. Army Forces Command is aware and profoundly interested in the Soldier Athlete initiative," FORSCOM spokesman Paul Boyce said. "We anticipate learning more details from Training and Doctrine Command about this new program's innovations in the months to come and will then determine how best to potentially implement its strengths into future unit-level programs."
The "Soldier Athlete" initiative of which Boyce speaks is a bold new program that treats and trains new soldiers like athletes. It is the latest project of Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who, in the past year, has revolutionized basic training, physical fitness and marksmanship.
Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising aspect of this three-tiered program is its "Soldier Fueling Initiative," which no longer "feeds" but rather "fuels" the soldier. The goal is to train the soldier to eat and drink healthier items that not only prepare him for strenuous physical activity, but also fuel him throughout the endeavor and aid in his recovery afterward.
"This is not simply about going to the salad bar to lose weight," Hertling said. "You're an athlete, and your performance depends on how you fuel. This is about how you work your body's energy systems to contribute as a soldier. You're an athlete, and you need to treat your body as such."
Hertling gave Army Times an exclusive invitation to his Aug. 4 "Standardization Summit" at Fort Lee, Va. There, the general gathered everyone from dietitians and sergeants major to box kickers and bean counters to hone nutrition standards and determine what changes should be made to chow hall menus and vending machines — and whether such a change was fiscally possible.
After three days of tireless analysis and statistical study, the 36-member group was able to cook up a new, healthier menu cycle that all Advanced Individual Training chow halls will offer by Feb. 1.
Before you have a coronary, realize that most of your favorite foods will still be available — with some modifications:
• Fried chicken and French fries will be baked.
• Pasta and bread will be whole-grain.
• Vitamin- and electrolyte-enriched drinks will replace soda at most meals.
• Low-fat frozen yogurt will replace cakes and pastries for dessert.
• The greasy pleasures of the short-order bar will be significantly limited.
• Fresh fruits and vegetables will be in abundance.
"It's going to be food that helps them perform better, and it's going to be accompanied by an education program so they understand why eating this way is not deprivation, but rather beneficial," TRADOC surgeon Col. (Dr.) Karen O'Brien said.
Specifically, the one-hour nutrition training common to basic training will expand to the Basic Officer Leaders Course and AIT schools. In addition, healthier foods will be identified by green labels, while moderate foods will have the cautionary yellow. And yes, the chow halls will still have some "low-performance, empty-calorie" red-tagged foods. But the goal is to teach soldiers what they should avoid and how to identify healthy choices in restaurants, grocery stores — and big Army chow halls — when color codes are not available.
"A lot of people underestimate how fundamentally important good nutrition is," said O'Brien, a family physician with 23 years in the Army.
And she is not just a spokeswoman — she is also a client.
"When we started working on this initiative, it changed the way I thought about nutrition," O'Brien said. "I started eating differently and it has significantly improved my health, my energy and my performance on athletics."
O'Brien said the initiative will produce a new type of soldier. Not just a warrior, but an athlete. And she said she is confident fewer basic and AIT soldiers will fail as a result. These soldiers will be less likely to have an overuse injury in their first assignment, she said, and have swifter and stronger recoveries if an injury does occur.
Hertling's team was able to fashion the changes without generating additional costs to the existing budget — with one exception. Recovery bars that help a depleted body bounce back come with an estimated $13 million price tag. That's down from original estimates of $30 million, but any increase is a tough sell in a time of diminished dollars. Still, Hertling said he was committed to finding a way, noting that the bars are essential to the fueling initiative.
Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Boudnik of 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment, recommended a "performance box" vending machine filled with high-performance, supplemental and energy bars. The idea caught the attention of Denise Gumbert, senior business program manager with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service. She pledged to launch a test site by year's end.
Hertling assured his team that their efforts are not the end, but the beginning of a "counterinsurgency in which there are no wins, only gains."
But his troops have set their sights on some clear targets.
Many of the subject matter experts and command representatives voiced a desire to see the increased emphasis on healthy options in vending machines expand to mini-marts. Gumbert expressed evident concern with the idea.
Hertling himself took issue with the food served in combat, which he described as "obscene."
"I gained 20 pounds as a division commander over there," he said. "You should not gain weight in combat."
He acknowledged that some people will gain weight due to "stress eating," which is marked by a craving for more fats and sugars. But the general said a greater contributor is the "27 different types of meals with all kinds of gravy and things that aren't healthy for you," as well as the ice cream shops and burger joints.
Hertling said he has not spoken with Gen. David Petraeus, who now heads up the International Security Assistance Force, but said he agreed with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's order to remove the fast food from Afghanistan.
"Those things significantly compete with logistic demands in terms of priority," Hertling said. "There is a have and have-not scenario because the guys on the big FOBs get a burger place while the guys in the little patrol bases never do, and the third thing is it is not healthy."
Shortly after Army Times' interview with Hertling, Petraeus reversed the order and now permits fast food in the ‘Stan.
There also was strong voice given by team members to getting rid of the popular high-caffeine, high-sugar energy drinks such as Red Bull and Monster. The desire was primarily due to the abuse of these drinks, leading to habitual behaviors and disrupted sleep patterns.
AAFES operates 13,000 soft drink vending machines, Gumbert said.
"It has become a trend, and is having some significant second- and third-order effects," Hertling said of the energy drinks. "It is a huge contributor to kidney stones, especially in hot climates. And since 2002, we have indicators across the board that our dental rates are really having some challenges."
Specifically, 32 percent of new soldiers in 2002 were classified as dental category 3 or 4, meaning they were nondeployable until the issue was addressed. By 2009, that number had jumped to 58 percent.
The general said the key contributor is the consumption of sugary beverages such as sodas and energy drinks, and a lack of milk. The lack of milk also contributes to bone problems resulting in more stress fractures, he said.
Hertling knows the plan to replace large amounts of food and snacks with healthier choices will be hard to swallow for some. And the idea of eliminating energy drinks won't sit well with everyone. But the downward trend in the health and performance of new soldiers is all the reason he needs.
"We've got this whole advertising campaign of ‘Army strong.' The question is, ‘Are we really Army strong?' he asked. "What I'm saying is, ‘Game on — let's see how strong we are.' "
As deputy commanding general for initial military training, Hertling has the unenviable task of increasing the health and performance of soldiers who hail from an overweight and arguably malnourished society. The triathlete who holds a master's degree in exercise physiology saw no need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he slapped some Army green on proven programs used by pro athletes, and his three-tiered Soldier Athlete program was born.
It began with Armywide improvements to the physical readiness program. Training Circular 3.22-20 has replaced the 10-year-old physical fitness field manual. Hertling also told Army Times he "has some ideas" about changes to the physical fitness test. He would not elaborate, except to say he will submit his recommendations within six months.
The second aspect places athletic trainers within IMT units to optimize training, reduce injuries and help in healthy recovery. Roughly one-fourth of soldiers' injuries result from physical training, according to Army statistics. Hertling said two test battalions recently had physical therapists, athletic trainers and strength coaches assigned, and saved $23 million in injury costs alone.
Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. and Fort Lee, Va., will be the first to receive these new Muscular/Skeletal Action Teams. All 1st Cavalry Division brigades also will have a physical therapist assigned to them by 2011, said Boyce, the FORSCOM spokesman.
The Soldier Fueling Initiative stands as the third component.
The changes inherent to Soldier Athlete are increasingly necessary as the Army is faced with an increasingly obese and unhealthy recruiting pool, Hertling said.
"We are only able to recruit about 25 percent of the population pool because the other 75 percent are too obese, have mental issues or a criminal past," he said. "So the ones we're really looking at are not in as good of shape as they were in the past."
The obesity rate among 17- to 24-year-olds has increased from 14 percent to 23 percent in the past 10 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From 1998 to 2008, the number of states in which 40 percent or more of young adults are overweight or obese grew from one to 39. The fact is not lost on Hertling, who described the negative trends he has seen in the ability of new soldiers to pass the entry-level fitness test that includes one minute of sit-ups, one minute of push-ups and a one-mile run.
He attributed this to a variety of reasons such as bad nutritional choices, changes in physical education programs in public schools and a generation that is "playing baseball with their thumbs instead of a bat and glove."
"All of those things are contributing to the type of soldier we are getting," he said. "As an Army, we are representative of the population we serve, and the population is getting larger. And that's an issue."
While Hertling is addressing this within Army ranks today, there are plans in the coming year to host forums and take the Soldier Athlete program to physical educators and external organizations in an effort to raise national awareness.
"We're seeing the early stages of this as being a potential epidemic that goes beyond our desire to train the soldier as an athlete," he said. "It will eventually get into health care costs ... and various second- and third-order effects. We're already starting to see this as a nation."
In the meantime, the team is looking to change one soldier at a time, and it is doing so during a formative period when they already are exposed to huge amounts of change. The general admitted sweeping change "is going to be tough," and even expects some will revert to long-held habits. But he remains optimistic nonetheless.
"The good thing about the environment I control is, I control it," Hertling said. "I can do something that I couldn't do as a division commander in the 1st Armored Division. I can limit their choices during the period they are in basic training and AIT. Hopefully, that will give them enough of a background to understand why this approach is good for them."
O'Brien echoed the sentiment and said AIT is the perfect place to instill new, healthy habits.
"They are very open because they want to succeed as soldiers," she said. "They want to have an advantage, and they want the tools that will make them successful. That is what we are giving them."