Military Dining Halls, Pentagon Failing on Efforts to Offer Nutritious Meals at Bases, Watchdog Says

Naval Weapons Station Yorktown’s Scudder Hall Galley
Various fresh fruit and vegetable items are pictured on the cold serving line at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown’s Scudder Hall Galley. (U.S. Navy Photo by Max Lonzanida)

Military dining facilities aren't following guidelines that aim to offer nutritious meals for service members, and the Pentagon has not done necessary annual reviews of those food programs in roughly a decade, a government watchdog has found.

A report from the Government Accountability Office, published Monday, found an initiative established in 2008 called "Go for Green" that labels foods offered at military dining facilities by color codes -- green for healthy foods that should be eaten often; yellow for foods that should be eaten only occasionally and in moderation; and red for unhealthy foods that should be consumed rarely -- has not been fully implemented at many facilities.

The government watchdog "observed examples of color and sodium codes that were missing, not standardized, or improperly placed" and added the Pentagon has "not fully addressed congressionally directed efforts to increase access to nutritious food."

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GAO investigators examined 19 dining facilities at eight military installations representing all Defense Department service branches across the country, from Joint Base Charleston on the East Coast to Naval Base San Diego on the West Coast. At many of those facilities -- 16 out of 19 -- food service officials said that "staff had not been trained" in the Go for Green nutrition program as required, the report detailed.

Investigators found that planned menu items were sometimes replaced with unhealthier options or even that kitchen staff were using outdated recipes, which made the options less healthy than the corresponding color code said they were.

    Offering nutritious food at the military's dining facilities has been a major initiative for nearly two decades as Pentagon officials have said "poor health and nutrition are growing challenges that threaten U.S. military readiness and its ability to retain a fit and healthy force," according to the report.

    Military bases are often overpopulated with fast food locations, which offer a quick and reliable spot for a meal for many service members instead of the on-base dining facilities, though the food may not be a particularly healthy or nutritious option.

    "For example, one large installation had 47 nonappropriated fund food venues offering service from 5:00 a.m. to midnight, in comparison to 14 dining facilities, most of which closed by 6:00 p.m," the report said.

    GAO investigators also said "service members told us that limited operating hours make it difficult to visit dining facilities where they can access healthy food," adding that "dining facilities were not always open when advertised."

    Many services have tried to offer unique dining options to accommodate more schedules and to prioritize convenience. One Army dining facility offered pre-packaged meals to go, and a Marine Corps base had walk-up and drive-thru windows where service members could use their meal cards. reported earlier this year that the Army has started operating food kiosks, which provide quick food and snacks similar to selections often found at gas stations.

    But many of those innovations don't follow the nutrition standards to which all the services are supposed to be adhering.

    "Some of the installations we visited have taken steps to address challenges related to service members' access to nutritious food," the report stated. "However, we found that such efforts were limited to specific dining facilities, did not align with a broader access strategy, and did not incorporate nutrition coding and labeling."

    Since 2014, the Defense Department has been tasked with conducting annual reviews of each service's dining programs -- something it has failed to do.

    Additionally, the defense secretary promised to establish a leadership group by September 2022 to oversee its efforts to overhaul nutrition for the military. But that group has not been created and staffed yet due, in part, to internal disagreements about structure and which organization should lead it.

    "Without establishing a process to perform annual oversight assessments of the military department's dining and eating environments and nutritional standards, [the defense secretary's office] lacks reasonable assurance that [the Defense Department's] nutrition programs, policies, and related processes are functioning as intended," the GAO report detailed.

    Overall, the GAO made 16 recommendations for the defense secretary, as well as the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy, ranging from creating annual assessments for the food nutrition programs to making sure the services follow certain existing nutrition standards.

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