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It Worked For The Romans
by James Dunnigan
December 3, 2011

The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army are having trouble getting troops to eat the free food available to them at their bases. As a result there are increasingly desperate efforts to improve the military supplied chow. But the air force found that more than half the troops living in barracks were not eating at the air force run dining facilities. Things were not much better in the army. In the navy, a large portion of the sailors are at sea, where there are fewer dining options besides the government supplied meals (which, to the navy's credit, have always been pretty good.)

All this is because higher pay for the troops has led to some unexpected behavior. One of these changes was that more and more unmarried troops (who comprise about half the force) don't eat at the "dining facility" (formerly known as the Mess Hall). While the official chow has been getting better, the troops prefer fast food, restaurants, or using a microwave back at the barracks. The unmarried troops no longer live in traditional "barracks" (a large room with a few dozen beds and wall lockers), but in rooms and suites competitive with those found in college dorms. Microwaves, and even small refrigerators, are common items, and this enables troops to do without the mess hall.

The remaining dining facilities (largely staffed by civilians) have been told to increase attendance, or be closed. With this incentive, there has been a lot of creativity and catering to all sorts of dining preferences (including vegetarians and regional preferences.)

Commanders have been noticing the sparsely populated dining facilities, and in some cases have been forced to close them (by the accountants, which the military has plenty of.) When that is done, the troops sometimes (when a base has no more mess halls) get extra pay each month with which to buy food. This comes to nearly ten bucks a day. And on some bases, common kitchens have been added to some barracks. Unlike civilian roommates, there are NCOs and officers around to order everyone to do their part to keep the kitchen clean.

Letting the troops feed themselves is cheaper than running the dining facilities, and is a return to a policy that existed for thousands of years, until about a century ago, when the military took over the "food service" task. Now the troops are back to "foraging and preparing" their own meals. Hey, it worked for the Romans.


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