A person in military uniform standing in front of a food truck as part of the Army Food Kiosk program with many closing DFACs.

Closing DFACs Reshape Soldier Meals with Army Food Kiosks

The Army is Closing DFACs and Launching Food Trucks and Kiosks In the Hope of Controlling Costs


Will replacing dining facilities (DFACs) with Army food kiosks be a hit or a miss? Unlike the Waffle House, where they consistently guarantee their patrons a healthy helping of southern hospitality alongside their hashbrowns covered, smothered, chopped, and capped 24/7, the Army has an ever-changing nutritional mission and target audience palate. The days of industrialized cooking corn, green beans, and Salisbury steak are gone. Installations are closing DFACs from low use, exacerbating the need for other options. Additionally, the Army’s end strength continues to get leaner, whether they like it or not, while soldier preferences grow fonder of more nutritious and convenient options.

New Soldiers May Find Food Kiosks and Closing DFACs

Private Johnson, a new soldier stationed anywhere in the Army, finds himself living in the barracks without personal transportation. The nearest Dining Facility (DFAC) is two miles away, a distance that is not easily walkable, especially in adverse weather conditions or when carrying gear. Johnson’s unit has not mastered their battle rhythm, leading to inconsistent working hours, which often do not align with the operating hours of the DFAC, leaving him with limited time to obtain meals during his free periods.

Without a car, Johnson’s options for meals are severely restricted. Delivery and carryout options are available on post, but these are more expensive and often do not offer a wide range of healthy meal choices. As a result, Johnson frequently relies on less nutritious, quick food options that he can order off-post or purchase from the barracks’ vending machines. This reliance on convenience foods impacts his wallet due to the higher cost of delivery fees and marked-up prices. It affects his nutritional intake, as these meals are often high in calories and low in essential nutrients.

The cumulative effect of these challenges on Johnson’s morale and overall satisfaction with Army life is significant. The difficulty in accessing affordable, nutritious meals contributes to frustration and isolation. It becomes a daily stressor that detracts from his training and professional development focus. Over time, the lack of proper nutrition could impact his physical health and fitness levels, further affecting his performance and readiness. This situation underscores the importance of addressing the accessibility and availability of healthy dining options for soldiers, particularly those without personal transportation and facing irregular work schedules. Improving these aspects could significantly enhance their quality of life, morale, and overall effectiveness as members of the Army.

The Department of Defense’s Health Promotion Policy

“Hello, we are the government and here to help.” When you hear the Feds have your best interest in mind, that mantra is the first thing many will think. And spoiler alert, they do; it’s just terrible execution. There is a method behind the madness. In 2017, Senator Tim Ryan (D-OH) said, “The number of Army soldiers kicked out for weight standards jumped tenfold between 2008 and 2012, with 1,800 soldiers losing their job[s] (Lockett 2017).” Many soldiers and veterans in the past decade served with at least one overweight soldier and one, if not the same, that could not pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) or Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) (Buckner 2019).

Beyond the lack of an individual soldier’s self-awareness, care, or understanding of health and nutrition, the dining options across an installation are far from the nutritional guidance in the Army’s Health and Holistic Fitness (H2F) program. Panda Express, Burger King, Subway, Qdoba, or, in some southern cases, Popeyes and Zaxby’s, bring high cost and cholesterol to soldiers. Over 6-7 years, some DFACs marked fried chicken as a healthy option. The high expense of nutritious food options hinders nutrition behavior improvements. The Department of Defense (DoD) instituted health promotion instruction, directing the military to create programs influencing soldiers’ health and nutritional decisions. This program combats an unhealthy lifestyle. The DoD intends to “enhance mission readiness, unit performance, and the health and fitness of members of the Military Services, medical beneficiaries, and civilian DoD employees through the creation of a culture within the DoD (Department of Defense 2014).”

Why Is the Army Closing DFACs?

The utilization rates of Army Dining Facilities (DFACs) have declined due to several key factors, with limited access being a primary issue. Soldiers, especially junior enlisted members, who are the main customers of DFACs, often face challenges in accessing these facilities. Extended or irregular work schedules, the distance from their places of work or living quarters to the DFAC, extended waits in line, limited parking availability, and restrictive hours of operation can make it difficult for soldiers to use their meal entitlements at DFACs. Consequently, many soldiers find it more convenient to purchase meals from private vendors on or off post despite having already paid for their meals in the form of meal entitlements.

Another significant reason for the underutilization of DFACs is the rise in competition from the private sector. With increasing dining options available near military bases, soldiers have more incentives to explore off-post dining. These private establishments often offer more comprehensive food choices, catering to diverse tastes and dietary preferences, which DFACs may not match. The allure of these options is vital, particularly when combined with the convenience and flexibility they offer compared to the more structured environment of a DFAC.

Finally, specific decisions and policies have inadvertently contributed to lower DFAC utilization rates. For instance, the decision to close or consolidate dining facilities based on low utilization rates, while financially pragmatic, further limits soldiers’ access to on-post dining options. Additionally, during periods like the holiday season, when DFACs may temporarily consolidate or close, soldiers are provided with less convenient alternatives, such as taking designated buses to available dining facilities at specific times. This inconvenience often leads soldiers to opt for off-post dining solutions, delivery, a shoppette, or vending machines, decreasing DFAC utilization.

Key Points:

  1. Limited Access: Challenges such as irregular work schedules, distance, long waits, limited parking, and restrictive DFAC hours deter soldiers from utilizing DFACs.
  2. Competition from the Private Sector: The availability of diverse and convenient dining options off-post draws soldiers away from DFACs.
  3. Policies and Decisions: Closing DFACs based on low utilization and inconvenient alternatives during closures reduces soldier engagement with on-post dining facilities.

What Is the Army Campus-Style Concept?

The Campus-Style Concept is an approach where various food vendors accept military meal cards within the installation. It allows soldiers to use their meal entitlements at a broader range of dining options beyond the traditional Dining Facility (DFAC). This concept mirrors practices at colleges and universities where students can use their meal plans at campus-operated and private food vendors. Unfortunately, said Tim Ryan (D-OH), “approximately $170 left unspent by each soldier every month adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of a year,” signaling a significant failure in the program and meeting soldier’s nutritional needs (Rempfer 2020). Additionally, the campus-style concept relies on vendors farther than the unit DFAC, reducing a soldier’s ability to take full advantage of the program.

Theoretically a great idea, but who does the Squad Leader hold accountable when the Army authorizes a soldier to use their meal card at Burger King three times a day?

Benefits For Soldiers:

  1. Increased Accessibility to Food: Soldiers have more dining options available within the installation, making it easier to find food that fits their schedules, tastes, and dietary needs.
  2. Convenience: Reduces the need for soldiers to travel off-post for meals or rely solely on DFACs, which may have limited hours or are located at inconvenient distances.
  3. Enhanced Meal Choices: Offers a wider variety of meal options, potentially leading to healthier and more satisfying food choices.

Benefits for the Army:

  1. Optimized Use of Meal Cards: Encourages soldiers to use their meal entitlements within the installation, ensuring the Army efficiently allocates funds for soldier feeding.
  2. Cost Savings: Potentially reduces the need to maintain and operate underutilized DFACs, leading to significant savings in operational costs.
  3. Flexibility in Feeding Programs: The Army can adapt more quickly to changes in soldier population and preferences, improving the overall effectiveness of installation dining services.
Person looking at beverage options in a refrigerated Army food kiosk, considering the recent closing DFACs.

What Happens to Army Cook and Culinary Specialists?

The rate at which the Army is closing DFACS significantly affects the Army’s Cook and Culinary Specialist (MOS 92G) in various critical ways. Primarily, this impacts their ability to support units in the field effectively. Without the support and resources typically provided by DFACS, these specialists face challenges in ensuring the timely and efficient supply of necessary food items and kitchen equipment. This situation could lead to delays in meal preparation or a decrease in the quality of food provided to soldiers, directly affecting their morale and physical readiness.

We cannot overstate the benefits of an experienced 92G in field conditions where optimal performance is crucial, such as the role of a well-functioning supply chain in maintaining the troops’ strength and stamina through proper nutrition. The Master Sergeant and Warrant Officer will ensure soldiers get food in any theatre or environment.

Furthermore, the closure of DFACS hampers the professional development of Cooks and Culinary Specialists. Traditionally, DFACS serves as a supply hub and a center for culinary excellence where these specialists can learn about inventory management, food safety standards, and cutting-edge cooking techniques. The absence of such a facility means fewer opportunities for hands-on training and skill advancement, potentially stagnating career growth within this specialty. In an environment where continuous learning and adaptation are crucial to advancement, the lack of access to a structured, resource-rich setting for professional development could lead to a decline in the overall competency and effectiveness of the Army’s culinary specialists.

Lastly, the closure of DFACS directly undermines the Army’s culinary operations by disrupting the supply chain essential for field support and curtailing professional growth opportunities for Cooks and Culinary Specialists. The reduced need for 92Gs affects the immediate operational capabilities and has long-term implications for retaining skilled personnel and maintaining high standards of food service and nutrition within the military. Unit leaders will also lose experience speaking with their DFACs and food specialists and understanding their capabilities. Units will run into food management issues as the Army transitions to Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). And privatized companies are profit-driven, disassociated from the unit, and cost more to operate.

  • Will serving out of a food truck translate to serving out of a Containerized Kitchen (CK) or Battlefield Kitchen (BK)?
  • Will the Army offload the burden of company-level cooking in an Assault Kitchen (AK) to the First Sergeant in a combat outpost?

Convenience foods counter the Army’s approach to Health and Holistic Fitness (H2F) nutrition. Additionally, privatization is always a can of worms and adds unnecessary constraints to unit leaders. Challenges such as the barracks environment, limited cooking opportunities, and empty kiosks are addressed by submitting missed meal vouchers for reimbursement. The kiosk initiative aims to solve these challenges and ensure service members can access convenient and nutritious meal options.

What Is the Purpose of The Army Food Kiosk?

The Army Food Kiosk provides soldiers with flexible meal options and reduces personal expenses for those living in the barracks. It also aims to offer healthy and fresh food choices through a partnership with 10 Army bases. The current list of installations that launched at least one food kiosk are:

  • Fort Wainwright, AK
  • Fort Carson, CO
  • Fort Stewart, GA
  • Fort Riley, KS
  • Fort Johnson, LA (formerly Fort Polk)
  • Fort Liberty NC (formerly Fort Bragg)
  • Fort Drum, NY
  • Fort Bliss, TX
  • Fort Cavazos, TX (formerly Fort Hood)
  • Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA

As early as 2019, Fort Stewart opened the Culinary Outpost Kiosk, featuring “food trucks staged in different areas throughout post and a Grab-n-Go kiosk similar to shoppettes (White 2019).” Fort Campbell followed in 2021 with the Outpost Army food kiosk.

What Are the Food Options Available at The Army Food Kiosk?

The kiosk offers microwaveable meals, cut fruit, pre-made salads, sandwiches, sushi, breakfast sandwiches, and drinks. DFAC managers, typically contractors, order items from the local commissary. Some installations added a food truck and grab-and-go options.

There are a few issues we feel obligated to highlight:

  • Lack of Variety: Soldiers have expressed concerns about the limited food selection at the new Army food kiosks, leading to dissatisfaction among troops accustomed to more diverse meal options.
  • Quality Concerns: Reports of DFACs serving raw or unhealthy food options have raised serious questions about the quality and safety of the meals provided, potentially putting the health of soldiers at risk. Food kiosks rely on a similar industrial preparation.
  • Reduced Dining Hours: Soldiers criticize the restricted operating hours of the kiosks, with some closing as early as 5 p.m., for being inconvenient and not aligning with soldiers’ schedules, especially for those who work late or have different eating patterns.
  • Privatization Concerns: Some soldiers see the shift towards a privatized food service system as a step towards prioritizing cost-cutting measures over providing nutritious and convenient dining options for troops. Also, unit 92Gs are removed from the food preparation.
  • Decline in Nutrition: Soldiers have noted a decrease in the nutritional value of the meals available at the food kiosks, raising concerns about the impact on their overall health and readiness.
  • Lack of Soldier Input: The decision-making process behind implementing the new food kiosk system has been criticized for not adequately involving soldiers in crucial decisions affecting their daily dining experience, leading to a sense of disconnect and frustration among the troops.
  • Dangers of Convenience Foods: The reliance on pre-packaged and processed convenience foods at the Army food kiosks raises concerns about the long-term health implications for soldiers, as these options often contain high levels of preservatives, additives, and unhealthy ingredients that may contribute to poor dietary habits and overall wellness among the troops.

How Does the Partnership with The Commissaries and On-Post Establishments Work?

The commissaries play a vital role in the initiative by partnering with the installation’s food services to bring food to kiosks and outposts. The installation commissary prepares meals, deli sandwiches, and salads and delivers them weekly. Additionally, installations are testing and enhancing meal-card holders’ eating ability at Army food kiosks, trucks, and on-post establishments. These are great options for soldiers, but they ignore the more significant issues we listed above, like transportation or nutritional quality.

How Do Service Members Make Purchases at The Kiosk?

Service members with a DoD Common Access Card (CAC) can purchase items at the kiosk using their meal card or other forms of payment. Soldiers select items from available menus for purchase or order from a master catalog vetted weekly by an Army dietician.

What Are the Challenges and Solutions Associated with The Army Food Kiosk Program?

Helmuth von Moltke famously said, “No plan of operations reaches with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main force (1880).” The Army food kiosk program is the same. The intent is good, but Army senior leaders are solving a budgetary issue, not a nutritional one. There are going to be significant issues; unfortunately, your soldier may be the one to experience it on a random Saturday afternoon when they find their DFAC closed or the food kiosk short on nutritional meals. Soldiers may address challenges such as the barracks environment, limited cooking opportunities, and empty kiosks by submitting missed meal vouchers for reimbursement. The initiative aims to solve these challenges and ensure service members can access convenient and nutritious meal options.

Key Points:

  1. A Work In Progress: The Army is great at putting the cart before the horse due to knife fight-like timelines, federal constraints, and a general lack of awareness. Closing DFACs may be the right decision for certain locations and the food kiosk might be the solution the Army needs. But like a pair of PT shorts, it might read medium until you try to squeeze into that horrible liner; not every installation will be the right fit for this program. Okay, that was not our best effort in comparing items.
  2. Communication, Technology, and Availability: The Army rolled the program out without a backend. How does the Army communicate closing DFACs and the transition to food trucks or campus dining? How does the installation communicate hours of operation effectively? How does the Soldier get to a working kiosk if their local machine is down? How does the Army reduce theft or over-consumption? So many questions that soldiers will be testing in real-time.
  3. Policies and Decisions: Closing DFACs based on low utilization and inconvenient alternatives during closures reduces soldier engagement with on-post dining facilities.

Army Food Kiosk and Trucks Are Great On Paper, Some Assembly Required

There is a sense that leaders are threading the needle with the Army Food Kiosk initiative as units continue to see closing DFACs. The kiosks represent a significant step in enhancing the dining experience for soldiers by providing flexible meal options, reducing personal expenses, and offering somewhat healthier fresh food choices. Through the partnership with commissaries and implementing a pilot program, service members can access various convenient and nutritious meal options, contributing to their overall well-being and readiness.

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