Soldiers and airmen at a several installations will soon start testing a new program that allows them to use their meal card entitlement to buy food at base locations outside the dining facility.

The expanded choices will be limited to healthy foods.

The test bases haven’t been named yet, but will include the Air Force Academy, a joint base, and a mix of up to five other Army and Air Force installations, said Charles Milam, former acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy, who has been working for years on the issue of healthy food on military installations.

The concept — similar to the flexible dining programs used by colleges and universities — is designed to encourage troops to eat healthier, while saving them money. It will allow them to use their government meal entitlements to buy healthy items at other on-base locations.

While troops with the meal card benefit are entitled to eat three meals a day in the military dining facility, they’re only eating an average of 1.3 to 1.5 meals per day at the DFAC, Milam said.

"They’re going out of pocket, outside the military dining facility to spend their own money. So that entitlement is not being used,” he said, during a recent panel discussion at a conference of the Association of Defense Communities.

“We don’t care where they eat — we want them to use their entitlement and to eat healthy,” Milam said.

The concept is similar to campus dining programs at colleges and universities, where money is loaded onto a declining balance card that allows students to eat at different places. In this case, the cards would be loaded by military officials at the installation. The pilot test will experiment with different mixes — such as loading half of the dining facility entitlement, if no more than half is being used, and loading another amount in monetary value. The cost of items bought outside the dining facility would be deducted from the monetary value of the card.

Under the test concept, soldiers and airmen at these bases would be allowed to use part of their meal entitlement at certain eateries run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, or AAFES, and healthy items at exchange convenience stores, or at other locations selling food operated by Morale, Welfare and Recreation, for example.

Bananas and other fruit, hard-boiled eggs and fresh salads are a few examples that are sold in AAFES convenience stores that are considered healthy. But a working group that includes nutritionists and dieticians, with representatives from AAFES, the Defense Commissary Agency and the Army Installation Management Command is determining the processes for determining healthy foods at convenience stores as well as other locations and eateries, Milam said.

The ability to use the meal entitlement elsewhere, similar to a campus dining program “offers another option for our service members to be able to use their meal card, use the benefit that they have, to get healthy eating options without necessarily having to go to the dining facility itself,” said Lt. Gen. Bradley Becker, commander of the Army Installation Management Command.

These tests are partnerships with officials at the Air Force Academy, the Army’s Installation Management Command, Army logistics officials, and AAFES.

The tests will determine whether the right systems and tools are in place, Milam said. “Then we’ll go back to DoD and Congress and really show proof of concept.”

This effort is one of a number of moves by different installations and service branches that are trying to encourage troops to eat healthier. For example, some bases are offering healthy choices as “grab ‘n go” options at fitness centers, and food trucks with some healthy choices, said Becker.

Becker said he is passionate about the issue of improving troops’ nutrition, and noted concerns about poor nutrition that, among other things, affected their bone density - and their ability to complete basic combat training.

“We have to be physically and mentally strong,” Becker said, and that includes fueling.

At a previous command, Becker found that soldiers were eating an average of 1.3 meals in the dining facility.

“In most cases, it wasn’t that there weren’t healthy choices, or that the food was poor," he said. “It was convenience.”

At the Air Force Academy, officials have taken the approach that nutrition and other aspects of being physically fit is part of their work in developing career officers, said Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, superintendent of the Air Force Academy.

“We have to be more deliberate about what we’re feeding them,” he said. Officials brought in cadets and staff members to get their input, and in one example, have put “grab ‘n go” healthy choices in the gymnasium where the cadets work out, and in other areas that are convenient throughout the day.

Tom Shull, director and CEO of AAFES, said he envisions service members at these installations would be provided a certain amount of money each month to spend at approved locations on base outside the dining facility.

“We want to limit the number of meals that they have at the exchange, versus the dining facility, because we want to support using the dining facility,” he said. “We’d also envision ‘grab ‘n go’ in the [convenience stores] where they could grab healthier selections.”

AAFES has been opening more eateries on Army and Air Force bases that offer healthy choices, such as Subway, Boston Market and Panera Bread, depending on the installation, Shull said. In addition, they’ve been focusing on offering more healthy items in their convenience stores, with 400 items now approved under their “Be Fit” program.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, applauds these steps to improve healthy food choices on military installations.

“Our military has evolved into the most powerful and technologically-advanced fighting force ever, but our military food system is outdated and inefficient," Ryan said in a statement. “Congress and the Department of Defense have consistently failed to treat our service members like the warrior athletes they are, and, as a result, virtually any college student in America has greater options, better tasting and more nutritious food than any soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.”

Congress, said Ryan, supports a food-delivery transformation.

“We must pour the same energy into fueling our personnel as we do our most advanced weapons system," he said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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