Food standards for enlisted men and women were in a state of change even before the Military Health System announced its 2012 overhaul. MREs, for example, are in constant development, with new "dishes" introduced each year, while on base there are more options for today's soldier than ever before. Many bases now outsource food operations to private contractors, and American-style food courts, including familiar franchises such as McDonald's and Starbucks, became commonplace during the decade Guerrero spent in the Marines. "When I was deployed to Bosnia, food courts were set up on the bases so servicemen could spend their hard-earned cash on typical American junk food they'd find back at their bases—pizza, subs, burgers, and fries," she notes.
Today's military dining facilities, also known in the Army as DFACs (Dining Facilities Administration Centers), are impressive in both the scale of their operations and the variety of options available. "When I first got to Iraq, I really expected to see the classic image of the cooks in their mobile kitchens, slaving away over grills for the troops," Gorman recalls. "This wasn't really the case. In fact, at Victory Base Complex, they had a giant DFAC with a 24-hour breakfast bar where you could get omelets made to order, plus a Mongolian BBQ grill, an ice cream bar, and coffee machines. Somehow those places never made it on CNN!"
Depending on logistics, camp size, and whether or not the DFAC is operated by a contractor, on-base menus can vary widely from location to location and even from meal to meal. Mike Furrow, a former Army infantryman, recalls, "When we were stationed in the Sinai, the food at the base was really great. That was the best mess hall I've ever been to in the Army. I do remember one day we had king crab legs." Other service members pointed to the extraordinary efforts that often go into making holiday and pre-deployment meals special: lobster tail for Christmas, turkey with all the trimmings on Thanksgiving, even restaurant-quality steak in the middle of the Iraqi desert.
For the most part, though, the typical military mealtime experience is not unlike eating in a school dining hall, albeit a huge one where everyone is wearing more or less the same outfit. Brett Owens, an Army surgeon who was stationed in Iraq in 2004–05, had his meals at a standard dining facility operated by a Halliburton subsidiary: "We ate quite well. Like a college cafeteria without paying—fresh fruit and veggies, short order, and hot daily meals. And ice cream."
Yet just as in civilian life, eating healthily isn't necessarily any easier to do just because you've got lots of food options—or because your ability to do your job well depends on staying in good physical shape. The Defense Department disclosed in February that it currently spends in excess of $1 billion a year on medical care related to weight problems, including diabetes and heart disease.
As Bridget Guerrero observes, "Most young troops are typical American teenagers who have indulged in junk food for their entire lives. I would get rid of the McDonald's, Burger Kings, and all the fast food from bases. I'm guilty of it, too, but there is just nothing good about eating there, and you see them packed at lunchtime. Healthy options are now available. Convincing young servicemen to choose those options is the challenge." Nearly one third of potential military candidates are too overweight to serve, according to the DoD, and over a thousand more entry-level troops are discharged each year due to their failure to meet fitness and weight standards.
Army Corps of Engineers project manager Amy Holmes Harris, who recently returned from 12 months of service in Kabul, saw some of the benefits of the new DoD initiatives: "Before I left Afghanistan, I noticed that the DFACs at Bagram Airfield were starting to put up signs that were color-coded to guide your food choices." Green signaled good, low-fat, healthy options; red signs meant high in fat and sugar. "This helped," Harris explains, "because I would see the red sign and think twice about my food choice." But still she came in for an unpleasant surprise at home. "After all the exercise I did while deployed in Afghanistan—teaching spinning class, lifting weights, running—I was shocked to learn my total cholesterol rose 50 points during my deployment. I had control over what I ate but not how the food was cooked." Harris was one of several who remarked she was eagerly anticipating what's being called "Mrs. Obama's food program."