Military food service is an important part of maintain the health and morale of a country’s service people. As one of the world’s biggest purchasers of military food, the US military represents less than 2% of overall US food sales but is a significant purchaser, supplying food products to both domestic and foreign bases and ration kits for men and women on active duty. Each branch of the US armed services decides whether to manage its own domestic food service activities or to contract out these services. Currently, the Air Force operates its own 277 dining facilities and flight kitchens, serving more than 91 million meals each year. Additionally, the Air Force manages more than 300 non-government-funded food and beverage operations, such as golf courses, bowling centers, snack bars and clubs, which generate more than US$193 million in sales. The Navy and Marine Corps, however, contract with private companies for food service at dining facilities.

Internationally, the military receives food through a long and complex supply chain. Most packaged, non-perishable food is purchased from US manufacturers and distributed through the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia Prime Vendor program. This food is purchased from American growers and producers, as required by the Buy American Act and the Berry Amendment. Food procurement for places such as Iraq and Afghanistan has been excluded from the Berry Amendment due to operational considerations, but most non-perishable food is still acquired from US manufacturers.

Suppliers ship their product to their closest US Prime Vendor distribution center, which packages food for shipment. Shipping containers are moved by truck to port, then loaded onto a US-flagged ocean vessel. Transit to the destination port typically takes 40-50 days. At the destination point, containers are loaded onto trucks and transported to the foreign-based Prime Vendor distribution facility where they are unpacked. The food is stored at the Prime Vendor facility until it is ready for delivery to a base or to a military installation. When an installation places an order, the food is packed onto pallets and shipped via truck to the installation, where it is again unloaded and stored according to the installation’s dining facility protocol. Typically, perishable food items such as fresh produce, dairy products and baked goods are not shipped from US manufacturers. Rather, they are procured directly from the Prime Vendor in each country.

The dining facility operation at foreign bases has largely been contracted to civilian companies, and these companies’ personnel are often drawn from the local population or from other foreign countries. Consequently, the Defense Logistics Agency has contracted out delivery of more than US$10 billion worth of food to US troops and other government personnel serving in the Middle East. The contracting job is complex. The Prime Vendor must be capable of supplying fresh and frozen food, from meats and vegetables to ice cream, baked goods and beverages as well as non-food items to remote military installations throughout the world. In addition, the vendor must deliver government-furnished food kits, rations and related operational items. Some fresh food can be obtained locally, but much of it must come from the US, according to typical Prime Vendor contract provisions.

Each country’s military has ration packets also known as “Meals Ready to Eat” for service members to use in the field when conditions for full food service are not possible. Most rations are produced from their respective country’s own home-grown products. Italy’s ration pack has cappuccino, pasta and bean soup, canned meat and dessert; France and Germany also have regional specialties such as goulash or cassoulet. The US has invested in technologies such as the three-year pizza and a flameless heater (powder in a plastic bag) to which one adds water and it heats up enough to warm the meal pouch of things such as meatloaf with gravy or Asian style beef strips vegetables.19


After schools, hospitals are the largest institutional food purchaser. Publicly funded healthcare systems vary in their spending. For example, the UK’s publicly funded National Health System spent over £560 million or £3.68 per meal. However, in the US, spending exceeds US$12 billion a year on food. Privately owned hospitals comprise most US facilities (70%) with the remainder owned by city, county, state or federal governments. Most hospital meals are served in cafeterias frequented by employees and visitors. Food is also served in patients’ rooms.

Public hospitals have limited budgets and often struggle to provide meals that meet nutritional requirements. Private hospitals with more funding are moving toward a “room service” model for patient food, where patients can order high-quality items off a menu. Like most institutions, hospitals often hire food service management firms, such as Aramark, and tend to buy from brokers and distributors that source food from across the country and throughout the world. Given concerns about hospital food quality, a number of hospitals throughout the country are now debuting Farm to Hospital programs that are bringing fresher, healthier food to medical facilities and giving local farmers new market options.

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