Upscale Meals in Store for GIs
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 19, 2002 "No more mystery meat. No more no-name casseroles," vowed Gerry Darsch. "What we've got are traditional, familiar foods, identifiable by the war fighter."
A decade ago, the director of the Defense Department's Combat Feeding Program said he needed "ballistic protection" when he went out to market his goods. Today, he's proud of the food his program has developed. So much so, that on the military's annual modernization days, July 16 and 18, on Capitol Hill, Darsch gave members of Congress, staffers and visitors a chance to sample his wares.
Mark Myer (left), Ming Truong (center), listen to Janice Rosado of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center explain a Remote Unit Self-Heating Meals, a meal with its own oven in a box. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"It was very good," Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph R. Pitts declared after lunching July 18 at Darsch's military chow hall-style buffet at the House Rayburn Office Building. "There was a lot of variety," he said. "It's neat to see all the different selections that you can get these days.
Pitts said he'd never tried Meals Ready to Eat before. When he was in the Air Force some 30-odd years ago, canned C- rations were the meal in the field.
"After I'd come back from training missions stateside," he recalled, "I would always save some of those little things in my flight suit. My kids loved to go through my pockets."
After sampling such MRE entres as roast beef and vegetables, and Thai chicken, Pitts said, "This is quite a difference. This is really upscale."
Upscale, appetizing, tasty Darsch is passionate about good food. His background is in food science and nutrition. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in food chemistry. He started working for the Defense Department 28 years ago, right after graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1975.
He's also passionate about providing good food to America's war fighters. "There is nothing more important than taking care of individual war fighters," he said. "One of the best ways to do that is to ensure that he or she is provided three high-quality meals a day.
"I'm extremely elated we have high-tech weapon systems, and thank God they're not used that often," he said. "But our products are used all the time, every day. What we develop touches a war fighter three-times-a-day, seven-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year for their entire careers."
There'll be no more guessing what troops in the field want, Darsch said. The Combat Feeding Program has a new philosophy: Warrior selected. Warrior tested. Warrior approved.
"We've gotten over the 'Father Knows Best' mentality," he noted. "Not too many years ago, we always thought we knew exactly what the war fighter needed, and we would make those improvements. That turned out to be less than successful."
Based on troop reaction, some items have been eliminated from the combat dining menu. Darsch said they include "Chicken a-la-King, affectionately called 'Chicken a-la- Death.' The smoky frankfurters the Marine Corps refers to as the 'Four Fingers of Death.' Instead of having the MRE, sometimes known as 'Meals Rejected by Everyone,' we now have a product, 'Meals Relished by Everyone.' Do we still have work to do? Yes."
The program's goal is to continuously improve the MREs and the Unitized Group Ration A and Unitized Group Rations Heat and Serve, Darsch said.
The Unitized Group Ration, he explained, is the result of Gulf War experience. Back then, a cook had to order up to 35 different items to put together a meal. Often, some items were out of stock and the cook was at the mercy of the logistics system.
"What we did was not rocket science, but common sense," Darsch said. "We took all of the components that a cook would need to provide a high quality group meal for 50 soldiers, and we unitized that into three shipping containers. Everything from soup to nuts, to include the trash bag, is now ordered as one complete package."
New items for the Unitized Group Rations Heat and Serve include baked ziti, beef and noodles, sweet and sour pork, and chicken with dumplings. The MRE repertoire includes Thai chicken, Yankee pot roast with vegetables, seafood jambalaya, beef enchilada, chili macaroni, Cajun rice and sausage, veggie griller with barbecue sauce and Mexican macaroni and cheese.
Darsch's food specialists have also developed a new pocket sandwich, something war fighters always included on their Top 10 wish list. Normally, pocket sandwiches are found in grocery stores' frozen food section, so the undertaking required some innovative thinking.
"I cannot provide every war fighter with a small freezer and a 9,000-mile extension cord," Darsch said. "So we went back to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center. We got our best food technologists together and we developed from scratch, a pocket sandwich that tastes as good as one that you can pop into the microwave, but it will be shelf-stable at room temperature for three years."
So far, they've developed a pepperoni pocket, an Italian pocket and a barbecued chicken pocket. They're currently working on a barbecued beef pocket and a cheese and bacon pocket sandwich that would be like a breakfast croissant.
The pocket sandwich is the foundation for a new First Strike Ration. When the future war fighter deploys, Darsch said, "there will be no cooks, no food service equipment. We want to reduce to the maximum extent possible, their individual weight and cube that they have to lug around."
The First Strike Ration is designed for up to the first 96 hours of conflict, he said. It weighs 53 percent less than three MREs and occupies 55 percent less cube. Three MREs weigh 4.5 lbs.
"We've got to use a lot of behavioral science to be sure that we're getting the right things into that First Strike Ration."
Developing food products for the armed forces is quite different than for commercial markets, Darsch said. "We've got a lot of requirements we have to meet with combat rations," he said.
Unlike the commercial sector, the shelf life for combat rations is three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or six months at 100 degrees. "We store, distribute and serve our foods from minus 60 up to 120 degrees," Darsch noted. "We also throw our stuff out of aircraft. Food Lion I don't think does that.
"If you and I don't like what we're getting for dinner at home," he added, "we can run to the refrigerator and grab something different. It's not a good thing for a war fighter to pop up out of his or her foxhole and run to the local convenience store, if there is one."
Food development specialists have to worry about "menu- monotony and fatigue," he said. "The other key driver is nutrition.
"Our mission as the combat feeding team is to fuel the individual war fighter. That war fighter is only as good as his performance dictates it can be, both cognitively and physically."
"Those weapon systems are only as good as the guy or gal operating them and let's face it, the most flexible and adaptable weapons platform on the battlefield is the individual war fighter."