The Army Food Service Program: Then and Now
Glen C Morris
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin-Summer 1992
Ever since the U.S. Army drew its first “line in the sand” at Lexington, MA, in the days of the American Revolution, commanders have been responsible for providing their soldiers with quality subsistence in a variety of environments and tactical situations. From the establishment of the first formal military food program in 1775 by the Continental Congress to a Class I (ration) breakdown point in Operation Desert Storm, the Army Food Service Program has undergone drastic modifications in an ongoing attempt to adapt to the soldier’s needs on the ever-changing battlefield.
The Continental Congress of 1775 attempted to standardize rations and the way units prepared them. The basic ration included 1 pound (lb.) of beef, or 3/4 lb. of pork, or 1 lb. of salt fish; 1 lb. of bread or flour; 1 pint (pt.) of milk, or payment of 1/72 dollars, and 1 quart of cider or spruce beer; 3 pts. of peas or beans per man per week.
Procured from commercial sources, these staples were issued to soldiers for individual or group preparation. As is true today, the commercial suppliers often did not deliver the required items or delivered inferior products. In some cases, contractors charged the military prices higher than on the civilian market. Overpricing resulted in the Continental Congress passing a law in May 1776 to regulate prices on salt. Salt was critical to preserving foods such as meats as there were no means of refrigeration available to the soldiers of this era.
Company-level food service was first introduced in 1777, with a focus on personal cleanliness and close supervision of food preparation and cooking. Large cooking pots were introduced to the inventory in order to make feeding of the entire company easier. The year 1777 also saw the first use of prepositioned subsistence along a deployment route as a battalion on the move from central Pennsylvania to Philadelphia was able to “eat on the go,” a concept used in tactical doctrine today.
The use of commercial transportation assets in moving subsistence was also introduced during the Revolutionary period. Commercially moving supplies forward to a unit’s location remains a key logistics function. Over 5,000 commercial vehicles were used during Operation Desert Storm to move supplies in the theater.
After the War of 1812, the War Department became responsible for central procurement of common supply items for all services. At the same time, the Army Subsistence Department was merged with the Quartermaster Department. Even with these changes, the Army continued to issue ration components to individual soldiers through the Civil War years. Eventually, company cooks were appointed and were excused from all other details in the unit.
In 1917 the Army adopted the concept that accountability for subsistence ended with its transfer from the supply depot or source to the local unit. The assumption was that it was better to have too much than too little and that supplies should be sent forward without requiring units to submit a requisition. This assumption added greatly to the total requirement for subsistence during World Wars I and II. Coordinated subsistence procurement began to take shape in the early 1940s with three Quartermaster depots for nonperishable items and 35 Quartermaster Market Centers for perishable foods. Food preparation during World War II focused on the typical company kitchen consisting of three gas-fired stoves, an ice chest, several 32-gallon cans and immersion heaters for washing utensils and pans, and a tent for cooking. Unit initiatives resulted in modifying the 2 1/2-ton cargo trucks into mobile kitchens in an attempt to push the subsistence forward. The Army declared this practice unsafe, however, and returned to the traditional tent cooking method.
After World War II, no visible post-war efforts were made to improve the Army’s inventory of equipment or subsistence systems. The Korean War found the Army using the same existing rations, equipment and systems. Additionally, the method of warfare had not changed from fighting on a clearly defined front. Everything in front of the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA) was enemy territory and everything behind the FEBA was secure. Cooks could prepare hot A-Rations (fresh) or B-Rations (dehydrated or semiperishable) directly behind the FEBA. This allowed serving hot meals to almost all soldiers three times a day unless they were out on patrol. When hot rations were not available, soldiers ate the Combat, Meal Individual (CMI). Because the logistical and tactical situation allowed serving hot meals, the theater commander ensured that facilities were in place and that fresh rations were available whenever possible.
The war in Vietnam was unique because it presented no clearly defined battle lines. Roads were cleared by the U.S. soldiers during the day and mined by the enemy at night. Ground supply routes were in constant danger of destruction, yet more A-Ration meals were served than in any other conflict. In the 1970s the Army introduced the mobile kitchen trailer (MKT) in an attempt once again to push subsistence support forward on the fast-moving battlefield. The 1980s saw the emergence of Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) and Tray Rations (T-Rations) as the standard rations for soldiers in the field. Improvements in both these rations have continued and include larger portion sizes, increased variety of meals and better preparation methods.
Vaulting into the 1990s and the war in Southwest Asia, the Army Food Service Program saw the introduction of the “Wolfmobile” that served fast foods, a major study of the Army Field Feeding System, and broad modifications in subsistence training given by the Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence, Fort Lee, VA. Ongoing initiatives show what must be done to prepare the Army to accomplish its subsistence mission well into the next century. One major area being looked at is the Army’s inability to feed the soldier an acceptable level of quality meals as evidenced by Operation Desert Shield/Storm. The result is a special task force whose mission is to examine every aspect of the Class I program from procurement to consumption and then identify actions required to properly support the Army during future deployments. The task force is studying factors such as prepositioning of rations and equipment forward, personnel strengths and equipment modifications, transportation, refrigeration, types of rations, and the actual feeding of soldiers under all combat situations. Based on the task force’s findings and decisions by Army leadership, changes will be initiated. Total supply distribution is also being studied in an attempt to improve the system from procurement to consumption, focusing on the industrial base, personnel, transportation and storage requirements. Part of the supply distribution issue is the need to take advantage of current automation technology in order to link the field kitchen or direct support supply activity and the depots.
No one aspect of the Army’s historical logistical experience can be singled out as most valuable in providing a guideline for the future. Our Army’s most precious resource is the fighting soldier who deserves the best subsistence support avail able. It is our responsibility as Logistics Warriors to take the lessons from history and provide the very best Class I support to our soldiers both in garrison and on the modern battlefields of tomorrow.