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Moving Toward a More Sustainable Army Food Program

Sustainability is a concept that is having a major effect on the commercial food service industry. Manufacturers, colleges and universities, food service distribution and management companies, and Government agencies are all talking about “sustainability” and what they are doing to promote it within their operations and business practices. The Army needs to answer several questions regarding sustainability: As part of the overall food service industry, where does sustainability fit into the Army Food Program? What exactly does sustainability mean? Should we be using sustainable practices? How do we know if we are being sustainable? If we are not, how can we start? Why should we even care?

Defining Sustainable

Before answering these questions, we should define the word “sustainable.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines sustainable as a way of “using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” Sustainability is typically used today in an environmental or ecological sense. In this context, Wikipedia defines it as the “ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological processes, functions, biodiversity, and productivity into the future.”

This certainly is not a workable definition for Army purposes. The problem is that sustainability is a complex term that can be applied to any ecosystem on Earth (such as oceans, forests, or wetlands) and can be included in human endeavors such as agriculture, architecture, and energy production. Furthermore, no definition is universally accepted and terms like sustainable, sustainability, sustainable development, and sustainable practices are often used interchangeably. Sustainability has been regarded as both an important but unfocused concept, like “liberty” or “justice,” and a feel-good buzzword with little meaning or substance. How can such a nebulous and vague term have such an impact on society?

For this discussion of sustainability and the Army Food Program, I will use the most widely accepted definition of sustainability and sustainable development, provided by the World Commission on Environment and Development: “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Living Sustainably

To live sustainably, we must use the Earth’s resources at a replenishable rate. However, scientists tell us that, as a whole, human beings are not living sustainably. Instead, we are using resources faster than they can be replenished. Sustainable practices, developments, and concepts are those actions taken and decisions made to attempt to reverse this trend.

More important than the technical definition of sustainability is an understanding of how sustainability affects the Army Food Program and grasping the how and why of operating in more sustainable ways. Let’s start with the why.

You do not have to be a certified tree hugger or carbon-credit speculator to see the value of sustainability. In fact, many aspects of sustainability merely involve using better business practices and have multiple benefits. I see three major categories of reasons why the Army Food Program should attempt to operate in more sustainable ways: environmental, social, and financial.

Environmental reasons. Regardless of whether you are a skeptic or you believe that manmade global warming and climate change, it should be obvious that, from an environmental standpoint, using less energy is preferable to using more. Changing ambient temperature requires the use of energy—energy that must be transferred from another source or form, often pollution-creating power plants. Business practices that lead to increased vehicle traffic use more gasoline and create more exhaust pollution. Trash must be transferred and discarded, requiring additional vehicle traffic and landfill space. Certain cleaning and operating supplies can be harmful to the environment. Sustainable business practices that reduce energy usage and trash generation and use less-damaging cleaning and operating supplies will reduce negative effects on the environment.

Social reasons. As society places a greater emphasis on sustainability, the Army will be expected to follow suit or perhaps even take a leading role. Sustainable operating practices will help to keep the Army in a positive light. Since the Army tries to loosely model its garrison dining facility operations after college and university food service operations, it follows that as they place greater emphasis on sustainability, the Army would do the same. Since the Army and colleges and universities target the same demographic (18- to 24-year-olds away from home for the first time), sustainable practices will be increasingly important to both.

Financial reasons. Many of the environmental benefits of sustainable business practices also make financial sense. For example, reducing food waste is not only better for the environment but also reduces food costs, which helps a dining facility maintain its account status. Reducing energy and water usage represents a cost avoidance to the installation. Reusing items for some other purpose eliminates the need for purchasing additional items.

The Army’s Move Toward Sustainability

The Army is already embracing sustainability. Several examples of how the Army is moving toward more sustainable operations include—

  • The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Strategic Plan for fiscal years (FYs) 2007 to 2013 includes a goal to increase DLA’s offering of “green” products by 25 percent through the end of FY 2011. As a major customer of DLA, the Army will begin to purchase more green products simply as a result of changes in the supply system.
  • In FY 2007, 78 percent of Army military construction projects were designed to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s new construction certification standards.
  • Almost every Army installation (if not all) has an active recycling program. This is an important part of sustainability that has been around so long that it is often overlooked.
  • On 12 January 2009, the Army received its first 6 neighborhood electrical vehicles (NEVs) and plans to purchase 4,000 more by FY 2012. These vehicles are street legal in nearly all 50 states on roads with speed limits of 35 miles per hour or less and can travel about 30 miles on one charge. The NEVs will replace part of the Army’s fleet of nearly 68,000 nontactical vehicles and will reduce the Army’s fuel consumption by almost 2 million gallons per year.
  • The Joint Culinary Center of Excellence is working with the Defense Supply Center Philadelphia and the other services through the Joint Subsistence Policy Board to determine the feasibility of promoting the use of certified humane cage-free eggs through the Subsistence Prime Vendor program.
  • The Army has its own website dedicated to sustainability and sustainable operations: www.sustainability.army.mil/.

Food Service Industry Practices

Here are several examples of how the food service industry is embracing sustainability. Not all of these would be feasible in Army dining facilities, and inclusion of these ideas in this article does not mean an endorsement of them. The goal is to identify potential sustainable practices and products for consideration and possible adoption.

Divert food waste from a landfill to more environmentally friendly options, such as donation or composting. An estimated 4 to 10 percent of all food purchased ends up as pre-consumer waste. The focus should therefore be first on reduction of waste and next on diversion since reducing the amount of food waste generated is cleaner and more cost effective than properly disposing of it. One way to do this is through the use of food waste audits, which involve identifying and analyzing food waste, both pre- and post-consumer, to determine the volume and types of food being wasted. This will hopefully lead to ways to reduce food waste both in the front and back of the house.

Compost food waste to reduce waste, cut waste-handling fees, and potentially help local growers. Many composting systems recommend only com­posting vegetable trimmings and avoiding meat and dairy items and also table scraps to keep out unwanted food and nonfood items such as straws. Other composting systems can take everything, to include table scraps, bones, and compostable ware all at once.

Use compostable take-out containers and cups. These are becoming more popular. Compostable gloves are also available for use in the kitchen.

Use refillable water containers. These are slowly replacing bottled water, which has been a prime target for environmentalists. At least one company offers a compostable plastic water bottle that will completely break down in as little as 60 days, and another is marketing its plastic water bottles as using 50 percent less plastic than the competition. (Bottled water is not authorized for purchase using Military Personnel, Army appropriated subsistence funds per Army Regulation 30–22, The Army Food Program.)

Switch to eco-clamshells, made out of sturdy melamine and plastic, as washable, microwavable, and reusable alternatives to Styrofoam take-out containers.

Adopt trayless dining, which is a growing trend in college and university food service settings. Although customer dissatisfaction is a key challenge, studies have shown that going trayless can reduce food waste by as much as 25 percent since diners no longer have trays on which to conveniently stack excess food. Going trayless reduces the amount of water and chemicals used in the dining facility by eliminating the need to wash trays.

Buy local. Another growing trend, this concept not only reduces the amount of fuel used to haul produce across the country but also provides a financial benefit to the local community.

Reduce waste on the service line by using smaller serving vessels at salad bars and for other self-serve options and refilling them more frequently or by starting with larger vessels at the beginning of the meal period and refilling progressively smaller containers as the crowd thins.

Use an employee reward program to recognize those who identify sources of food waste reduction in the dining facility or who do not take shortcuts when using established waste reduction methods.

Avoid preheating all food service equipment just because it is time to start cooking. Instead, carefully determine which pieces of equipment should be turned on (and off) and at what time so that they do not run longer than necessary.

Reduce energy consumption by ensuring that proper maintenance is performed on food service equipment and installing low-wattage lighting and low-flow plumbing fixtures.

Install bulk cooking oil tanks to reduce food costs and packaging.

The following website contains more ideas and information on how to run more sustainable food service operations: www.sustainablefoodservice.com/.

Some Army food service operations have already begun to adopt sustainable practices. I hope that you will consider adopting some sustainable practices of your own and that you will share your experiences with us at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence. Contact David Sherriff by telephone at (804) 734-4862 (DSN 687) or by email at david.sherriff@us.army.mil for more information on sustainable food service practices or to share your ideas and experiences.

David J. Sherriff is the chief of the Concepts, Systems, and Policy Division in the Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence Operations Directorate, at the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence at Fort Lee, Virginia. He holds a B.S. degree from the University of Toledo and a M.B.A. degree from Colorado State University. He is a graduate of the Army Management Staff College’s Sustainment Base Leadership and Management Program.


 
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