How often are service members passing up their meal entitlement and choosing to pay out of their own pockets and eat elsewhere, rather than eat at their dining facility?

For the most part, defense and service officials don’t know.

Which means they don’t have enough information to know how effective they are at their primary mission: feeding the troops, according to a report by government auditors.

With the exception of the Air Force, the military services aren’t tracking how much service members are using their meal entitlement benefit in their dining facilities, and other locations such as food trucks and kiosks where they can use the entitlement, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. The services collect head count information, but don’t use it to track the use of the meal entitlements, although DoD guidance requires using head count data for periodic tests on the use of the entitlements. There’s also inconsistent and incomplete tracking of the taxpayer costs of these programs — including the cost per plate.

Tracking the use of meal entitlements would help food service program officials monitor their programs, and decide if they need to take steps to entice service members to eat in the dining facilities more often. Food allowance money is being withheld from service members’ pay to provide them with three meals a day, but some are choosing to spend extra money out of their own pocket to eat elsewhere.

GAO recommends that DoD track the use of meal entitlements; identify and report standard data on food program costs; and coordinate with other entities within DoD, other federal agencies, and industry as it develops a formal process for revising food ingredients. DoD menu standards are an integral part of the food program, auditors said, and DoD needs to be more transparent when making changes.

All of the military services’ food service programs consider junior enlisted service members living in barracks or dormitories to be their primary customers, and providing their meals is their primary mission. The Army calls their dining facilities “warrior restaurants;” the Navy calls them “galleys;” and the Marine Corps calls them “mess halls.”

Generally, all service members who are entitled to basic pay are also entitled to Basic Allowance for Subsistence, except in certain circumstances such as basic training. Enlisted members in grades E-1 through E-6 who are permanently assigned to live in single government quarters ashore may also be assigned to essential station messing. They’re charged for all the meals the government makes available to them, through a direct deduction from their pay, whether or not they choose to eat every meal.

Some of the services have been exploring other options, started before the pandemic hit, such as the Air Force’s Food 2.0 program, which allows airmen living in the dorms to eat at additional designated facilities, such as bowling centers, clubs and golf course snack bars.

“It is clear from the GAO report on the military food program that the system is in desperate need of transformation and modernization,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, in a statement to Military Times. “After many broken promises the system is still largely the same, with evidence showing that service members on meal cards are eating less than half the meals they are entitled to and for which they are charged.”

In this GAO report, the Air Force estimates higher usage. The Air Force estimates that service members consume 72 meals per month on an installation, out of the 90 meals they are authorized. Air Force officials use monthly data provided by the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to track use of meal entitlements.

“Our military communities should have access to the same appealing food, healthier brands and innovative food delivery systems found in the private sector and on university campuses,” said Ryan, who has been pushing military officials to modernize the installation food system and pressing for information about the usage of the dining facilities. He also has pushed for information about where the food money goes that is unspent by service members every year.

Ryan noted how complicated the military food system is and said his staff brought him a flow chart. “There’s no flow,” he said, during a May 11 hearing of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.

“This is a food management and operations problem,” Ryan said. During the hearing, he cited broken promises by the services in addressing issues with the military food service system, and questioned Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about the status of the DoD food transformation cell, which was directed by Congress: “How you can assure us that as we move towards food transformation, there’s not going to be more broken promises?”

Austin replied that the food transformation cell will start work in September.

“I think that the food transformation cell will provide significant benefit in terms of assisting us in coordinating our efforts here,” Austin said. The group’s purpose will be to develop and carry out a plan to improve access to healthily prepared and pre-prepared food on base, according to the congressional direction.

The military services also don’t provide comparable information on a key measure — their cost per meal.

Auditors recommended that DoD work with the military services to establish guidance for developing common measures for costs per meal and other specific categories of costs. Defense officials agreed in their response, and said they expect to complete the work by the end of fiscal 2024.

Using information from the services, the GAO auditors calculated the costs per plate in 2019 at four installations they reviewed — before inflation hit in 2021:

Fort Carson, Colorado: $10.53 per plate

Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia: $4.17 per plate

Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California: $6.23 per plate (a weighted average for various reasons)

Eglin Air Force Base, Florida: $3.72 per plate

The GAO auditors found that the services don’t conduct installation-wide assessments of different options of food programs, and recommended they set up processes to do so. The services replied that they are in various stages.

The Air Force expects to set up its process by April 2023; the Marine Corps expects to finish setting up its process by the end of September; standards and accreditation processes already exist or are being implemented for the Navy Ashore Galley Program and the accreditation process with revised standards will begin in fiscal 2023. The Army has Food Management Assistance Teams that review current food program operations “as required/requested” at the installation to make sure the objectives of the Army Food Program are being met.

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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