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CHIPS Articles: Feeding the Fighting Force

Feeding the Fighting Force
By Sharon Anderson - April-June 2008
"Out motto is, 'Warfighter Recommended, Warfighter Tested, Warfighter Approved.' Nothing goes in or out of a combat ration unless it has been tasted and tested by warfighters in the field."
— Program Integrator Kathy Evangelos, Combat Feeding Directorate U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center

Scientists and engineers are engaged in game-changing technology in the communication, electronic and intelligence fields at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. Products such as the Special Weapons Observation Remote Recon Direct Action System, the Army SWORDS Trainer, Digital Tactical Holograms and Cold Spray technology are just a small sample of the warfighter and warfighter support innovations they deliver.

RDECOM subordinate elements, U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Simulation and Technology Center, score high in exceeding warfighting requirements with innovative technologies.

In February, RDECOM participated in a major defense technology conference in San Diego with an impressive display of the warfighting technology mentioned above and a variety of food products.

Food products are not what usually comes to mind when you are thinking about high-tech Defense programs, but make no mistake, producing quality combat rations is serious science.

RDECOM's joint initiatives include the NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate, which perhaps has the least understood, but one of the most satisfying missions in the Defense Department.

It is rocket science

NSRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate is located in Natick, Mass., with a team of about 100 engineers and scientists, who are food technologists, food scientists, microbiologists, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineers, and nutritional biochemists. Kathy Evangelos, program integrator, is part of this dedicated team and is both eloquent and passionate about providing troops with meals that are appetizing as wells as nutritionally balanced.

Evangelos talked about the development of food products designed for remote locations, in combat, and for Navy ships at the RDECOM exhibit. She was surrounded by samples of the food products developed and produced for warfighter consumption.

"Now there is so much science that goes into one meal bag; we can put great science and great engineering in all this food, but if the warfighter is not going to eat it, we haven't done our job," Evangelos said.

According to Evangelos, food products are rigorously tested, and not just in the lab.

"For the MRE (Meal, Ready-to-Eat) and group rations, we go out to the field annually with warfighters, usually Army or Marines, and we run field tests where we test new components for the MRE and the Unitized Group Rations (UGR).

"We tested 33 new components this year, and the decisions are made based on warfighter feedback. That feedback means scoring at least a six on a nine-point hedonic scale with one being extreme dislike and nine extreme like. It must get a six or higher from warfighters before any item can be put in a meal," Evangelos explained.

"We don't have that 'Father Knows Best' mentality — no more mystery meats and no-name casseroles. It has to be warfighter recommended, tested and approved.

"The items that were tested last year will affect the 2010 date of pack for the MRE. We are planning this year's field tests already and looking for new products that will affect 2011 — the 31st anniversary of the MRE," Evangelos said.

Feedback from warfighters has led to tremendous changes to the MRE. Originally, the MRE had 12 menus, then it was increased incrementally to 24.

“The items that were tested last year will affect the 2010 date of pack for the MRE. We are planning this year’s field tests already and looking for new products that will affect 2011 — the 31st anniversary of the MRE,” Evangelos said.

Feedback from warfighters has led to tremendous changes to the MRE. Originally, the MRE had 12 menus, then it was in¬creased incrementally to 24.

“We think it is pretty good, but it really doesn’t matter what we think; it matters what warfighters think,” Evangelos said.

Food products and menus are planned two to three years ahead of time due to production timelines, but Evangelos said the team works hard to keep up with current trends in food tastes and food service. Menu items that are not palatable to warfighters are removed.

“We will have warfighters come up and say, ‘Get rid of the ham slice. Get rid of the omelet.’ We will say that it is already gone because we are careful to listen to our warfighters. We ask warfighters what they would like to see in an MRE,” Evangelos said.

Although, the team strives to produce appealing food products, they are also careful to provide healthy meals for warfighters serving in high operations tempo (OPTEMPO), according to Evangelos.

Combat Rations to Go

“All menus, all rations are approved by the Office of the Surgeon General. We can’t have a meal bag full of snacks because warfighters like snacks. It’s important that they be nutritionally balanced in terms of appropriate fat, carbohydrate, protein ratios as well as containing all of the micronutrients, all of the vitamins and minerals that are required,” Evangelos said.

To demonstrate her point, Evangelos talked about several new innovative combat rations that are soon to be deployed to the field and to Navy ships.

“Our first one is the First Strike Ration (FSR™) to be fielded in March 2008. It’s designed for the warfighter that is first on the ground and the first to fight. This is going to become the Marine Corps’ new assault ration. Everything that you see here in the display is in this package.”

The FSR is a compact ration designed for use during initial periods of highly intense, highly mobile combat operations. The FSR is substantially reduced in weight and cube and enhances warfighter consumption, nutritional intake and mobility. The FSR contains 2,900 calories and can be used alone or to supplement the MRE. The FSR is intended to be consumed during the first 72 hours of combat, according to Evangelos.

Combat rations are designed to be eaten on the move with no preparation required. One of the main components is the shelf-stable pocket sandwich, which now comes in five different varieties such as barbecue chicken and barbecue beef. More varieties will be added as they are developed. The sandwiches are approved for the MRE and are the first sandwiches that do not require refrigeration.

“It is like the Hot Pocket® that you find in the supermarket,” Evangelos said.

Other items have pouch designs that have built-in spouts so that warfighters can consume the product right out of the pouch. For example, Zapplesauce is one of the best-liked components, according to RDECOM. The product is made with extra maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate, for sustained energy release. Maltodextrin is also the key ingredient in the Energy Rich Glucose Optimized beverage mix (known as ERGO), which tastes similar to a sports drink.

“We have other products like caffeinated gum. This one is popular. You are looking at 100 milligrams per chew. That’s like a cup of coffee. This drink pouch has an ergonomically designed package that is resealable so that you can tear it open, take water from your hydration system, put it in the bag, zip it closed, shake it up and consume it right out of the pouch,” Evangelos said.

“The other new ration used by Navy units — perhaps by SEALs or Seabees — is the Unitized Group Ration – Express (UGR-E). This is what we call Kitchen in a Carton™. This is a group ration and it’s designed for warfighters in remote locations or MTT teams, Military Training Transition teams, who typically had hot chow delivered,” Evangelos explained.

Usually meals were delivered regularly three times a day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But insurgents began to notice this pattern. The UGR-E was developed in response to warfighter feedback. Now warfighters say that the UGR-E saves lives because it can be delivered anytime and improves tactical mobility. It requires no cooking, no fuel, no equipment and no power; each self-contained system is designed to be air-dropped, weighs 40 pounds and feeds 18 service members.

“It has four trays of food, an entrée, a starch, a vegetable and a dessert and all the other products needed for a good meal from trays to trash bags. It even includes serving spoons, snacks, the same drink pouch that you saw in the First Strike Ration and the ever-popular Tabasco® sauce. We tried to put large-sized Tabasco in the UGR-E and the feedback we got from the field was that warfighters wanted their own bottle so we put the small individual bottles in,” Evangelos said.

Both the UGR-E and FSR have been extensively field-tested in-country with warfighters, the FSR with the 25th Infantry Division and with the 2nd MEF in Fallujah, and the UGR-E by the 25th Infantry Division. They both went through accelerated development. The UGR-E hit the field in August 2007 and the requirement skyrocketed, according to Evangelos.

“During UGR-E’s producibility test in 2006, when we were working on the final details with industry, U.S. Central Command asked for a turkey dinner. We were able to quickly work with Defense Supply Center Philadelphia and switch out some of the menus so instead of chicken breasts or spaghetti, the four trays contained turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, cornbread stuffing with sausage, and vegetables,” Evangelos said. “We were able to provide turkey dinners to the most remote units. That’s going to become a yearly requirement.”

To heat the Unitized Group Ration - Heat & Serve (UGR-H&S), the warfighter pulls a tab and a saline solution is released to a chemical heater similar to the heater in the MRE.

“We call it a heater on steroids. It is big because it needs to heat a six-pound tray of food, and in about 35 minutes you have a complete hot-cooked meal for up to 18 warfighters,” Evangelos said.

New Galley Design

The team also has a number of ongoing initiatives for the Navy. One is the Navy Standard Core Menu. Navy transformation efforts will provide new Navy ships, carriers and submarines with the latest technologically advanced modular food service systems and newly designed ergonomically enhanced galleys.

Future galley designs and configurations will use a total systems approach to incorporate the latest technologically advanced commercial designs and equipment. Additionally, this effort will support future state-of-the-art Navy vessel designs and enable culinary specialists to produce quality food products and services while reducing time, labor and manpower levels.

“The Navy has recently adopted more advanced foods in their menu because future ships will not be designed the same way that the ships today are designed. You don’t see as much cooked from scratch. You see more prepared foods. You see that now in some of your casual dining restaurants. Many of the products are pre-prepared, frozen chicken breasts, for example.

“If you look at all the ingredients it takes to make lasagna, and then imagine lasagna day on a carrier with decreased manning, having a frozen product will save considerable labor and accommodate the Navy’s reduction in culinary specialists,” Evangelos said.

The Navy Standard Core Menu will be standardized across the fleet, and the team has worked with Naval Supply Systems Command to develop the menu and provide solutions for food service onboard ships.

“Right here you see a model of the modular equipment we are designing for submarines. This one happens to be a Combi-Oven™ and on top of it is a griddle that’s built in. We call it ‘hatchable’ because it comes apart and can fit through a 28-inch hatch. Typically, if you had to install a new oven on a sub, the oven would be delivered to the pier; it would have to be torched, cut in half, to get the pieces down the hatch.

“Once it gets down the hatch, it has to be reassembled, welded back together, and we hope it works right after we have gone through that process, about 500 man-hours. We have worked with commercial industry to design a hatchable system. You are looking at 50 to 75 man-hours to reassemble this once it reaches the pier. That is a tremendous reduction. We have already installed one of these on the USS Philadelphia,” Evangelos said.

The Combi-Oven combines three modes of cooking in one oven: steam, circulated hot air or a combination of both. The combi mode is used to re-heat foods and to roast, bake and oven fry. The hot air mode operates as a normal convection oven for baking cookies, cakes and pastries. The combi mode decreases overall cooking times, reduces product shrinkage and eliminates flavor transfer when multiple items are cooked simultaneously.

“We test a lot of state-of-the-art equipment at Natick that will speed things up in the galley and that are easy to clean. For example, we tested an oven that can be cleaned in about 10 minutes. Probably one of the ugliest jobs, besides working in the scullery, is being the guy or gal who has to clean the ovens.

“If you have seen how many ovens there are on a carrier — that is not one of the most pleasant jobs. We had culinary specialists in tears once when they saw how easy it was to clean the oven,” Evangelos said.

Combat Feeding Directorate is a joint service program and has been since 1970, Evangelos is quick to point out. The team is now working with Navy Program Executive Office Ships, PEO Subs and PEO Carriers on galley designs for the new DDX destroyer.

“We have evaluated some galley designs for DDX. We are not only looking at modular but more streamlined designs, better flow through, and incorporating new types of automated equipment. Down the road we are looking at things like process control and remote monitoring, where the equipment will actually have diagnostics and prognostics not unlike what you have in your car.

“When it is time for an oil change your car lets you know. In the galley, remote monitoring will allow you to know whether an oven door is open from a remote location and will also tell you when gaskets need to be replaced,” Evangelos said.

This capability is designed to work through a local area network or wireless network depending on the ship’s systems.

A big leap forward from the K-rations of World War II

Good food is a huge factor in maintaining morale and can contribute to retention and overall satisfaction. According to Evangelos, much research goes into preventing spoilage and providing troops with the freshest food possible. This is no small task since the MRE is required to have a three-year shelf life at 80 degrees. At 100 degrees, it has to last six months. It also has to be stored anywhere in the world from minus 60 to 80 degrees.

The MRE is the standard general purpose ration used by all the services. Each menu has 1,250-1,300 calories, and they are issued three per warfighter per day. Of the 24 menus, there are four vegetarian menus. The team conducts continuous product improvement for the MRE and all combat rations. But boredom sets in quickly on deployment so food variety and appeal are paramount to meal satisfaction.

The Natick team is working on some revolutionary food processing technologies to preserve freshness. MREs and UGRs are thermostabilized, that is processed with heat to destroy microorganisms and enzymes that may cause spoilage.

“They are subjected to a retort which is like a giant pressure cooker. That’s the same canning process that was developed by Nicolas Appert for Napoleon over 200 years ago, and those are still the same kinds of cans we buy in the supermarket.

“We are looking at microwave sterilization and high-pressure processing. High-pressure processing has application for the Navy as well. Instead of subjecting products to high heat like you do with thermostabilization, we are subjecting them to lower temperatures and high pressures. Our goal is to achieve full sterilization like any canned commercially available product,” Evangelos said.

Right now, high-pressure processed foods that are commercially pasteurized still require refrigeration. The goal for the Natick team is commercial sterilization where food is subjected to up to 130,000 or 140,000 pounds of pressure. That kills the microbes and renders them ineffective and that will render the product commercially sterile.

“We are getting close with commercial industry; we are not doing this alone because we need buy in from industry to petition the Food and Drug Administration on this process. We are not in the business of developing food products that are militarily unique,” Evangelos said.

A good way to inject variety into the warfighter diet is fresh fruit and vegetables, what Natick calls FF&V. But FF&V are fragile and generally have a short shelf-life.

“This is a display of good-looking fruits and vegetables. We came upon a new technology by a company called APIO. Smart label technology effectively monitors the carbon dioxide and oxygen ratios both inside the package and outside to extend shelf life.

“Typically, fresh fruits and vegetables are a tremendous morale booster. When the supply ship comes along, especially if you are out to sea and you are having an underway replenishment or an UNREP as the Navy calls it, sometimes the green vegetables that show up aren’t supposed to be green,” Evangelos said.

Using the new technology, romaine lettuce can last up to 45 days. Some sensitive commodities like bananas can last up to 15 days. To be able to have a fresh salad, even in a sub, is a tremendous morale booster, according to Evangelos. The system uses a “Smart Crate” to prevent mechanical injury during shipment and polymer membrane technology to create modified atmosphere packaging.

“We have had tremendous success in the lab, and we are doing a four-week test on the USS Ronald Reagan now, looking at MAPS, this Modified Atmosphere Packaging System. We sent some FF&V out with them, and we will be conducting focus groups with culinary specialists and supply folks to see how MAPS performed,” Evangelos said.

In fiscal year 2005, NAVSUP spent $26 million on FF&V; more than $3 million in FF&V losses were reported. This technology would significantly reduce loss due to spoilage.

Although extensive testing is done at Natick, products and technologies are tested vigorously in the field.

“We need to put it in the field, whether it is a ration, a new system or new equipment. We need to put it out with the user and let them give it a good ‘shake, rattle and roll.’ When we are testing equipment at Natick, one of our favorite pieces of equipment is the one that does the shake, rattle and roll that simulates a ship out to sea. We need to see how that piece of equipment will fare when it’s tilting 30 degrees,” Evangelos said.

The team is working on some other high-risk, high-payoff revolutionary technologies.

“For example, in packaging we are using nanotechnology to incorporate nanoclays to get better barrier properties to prevent moisture and oxygen transmission. We are looking at human performance optimization, and this is one of the first of its kind.

“There is a lot of hype out there [about the value of food supplements]. You can buy all sorts of products and we know some of them have a good science base, but there are many claims made. Those claims need to be scientifically proven.

“We are looking at small organic molecules and nutraceuticals that imply that the extract or food is demonstrated to have a physiological benefit or provide protection against disease. We have seen positive results and statistically significant results in animal models. We are going to be moving into human clinical trials, not only to determine if it helps performance, but [to determine] what are the dosage requirements,” Evangelos said.

Because there is potential in the marketplace for some of these food products, such as the UGR-E, the NSRDEC Technology Transfer Office is investigating the UGR-E’s value in disaster response.

“We have the National Protection Center that’s involved with the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). We have demonstrated the item, and we have a lot of good feedback on its potential use in disaster scenarios. We are just beginning that process,” Evangelos said.

Evangelos likes to say that she and the Natick team have 2.2 million customers.

“It is fascinating! You look around this exhibit hall and a lot of things here go bang in the night. Food doesn’t go bang in the night, and when it comes to food everyone is an expert and everyone has an opinion. It takes a team of dedicated scientists who are really looking out for the warfighters’ interest and can produce meals that warfighters will eat.”

Future Galley
Future galley designs and configurations will use a total systems approach to incorporate the latest technologically advanced commercial and/or commercial-modified designs and equipment. Additionally, this effort will support future state-of-the-art Navy vessel designs and enable culinary specialists to produce quality food products and services while reducing time, labor and manpower levels.

Advanced Technologies:
• Advanced Shipboard Modular Refrigeration will provide modular, dual temperature freezer/chill storage with bulk ice-making capability.
• Smart Galley Process Controls will enable the remote monitoring of food service equipment and provide diagnostic and prognostic maintenance.
•Automated Shipboard Dishwashing System will alleviate manpower and labor/time requirements.
• Smart Card inventory management system to improve inventory control and reduce manpower requirements.
• Other efforts are underway to address FF&V and menu requirements.

Capability and Benefits:
• Commonality of food service equipment fleet-wide, resulting in purchase cost reductions and decreased repair and maintenance costs.
• Total systems approach to consolidate food service spaces and functions to optimize resources, diminish galley tasks, reduce redundant equipment, and minimize operating and support (O&S) and total life cycle costs.
• Recommend modern efficient equipment and systems to support galleys on carriers.
• Evaluate galley equipment to support the Navy Standard Core Menu.

This effort will support Navy legacy and future ships by consolidating food service space designs and autonomous systems to reduce the overall workload aboard vessels and support the Navy’s future optimized crewing requirements.

The Combat Feeding Directorate will coordinate efforts with Naval Air Systems, Naval Sea Systems and Naval Supply Systems to incorporate technological advances and upgrades as they become available.
CFD point of contact: COMM (508) 233-4670, DSN 256-4670
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Kathy Evangelos explains the process of preserving fresh fruits and vegetables for warfighter consumption in remote areas, in combat and on Navy ships at the West 2008 conference at the San Diego Convention Center Feb. 5, 2008. Photo by Andricka Thomas, RDECOM public affairs specialist.
Fresh fruit and vegetables packaged to extend shelf life with the Modified Atmosphere Packaging System. Shown on the table are combat rations including the First Strike Ration. Fielded to Marine Corps troops in March, the high-calorie, high-energy FSR™ is designed for the first warfighters on the ground and the first to fight.
Kathy Evangelos demonstrates the Kitchen in a Carton™. This is a group ration that requires no cooking, no fuel, no equipment and no power; each self-contained system is designed to be air-dropped to remote locations, weighs 40 pounds and feeds 18 service members. Warfighters say that the Unitized Group Ration - Express (UGR-E) saves lives because it improves tactical mobility and can be delivered anytime.
Program Executive Office Ships photo
Two Soldiers look at the contents of the First Strike Ration during an evaluation of the FSR at Fort Bliss, Texas, Sept. 4, 2007. Photo by Sarah Underhill.
The FSR is designed to improve tactical mobility and meet the maneuver sustainment needs of the joint warfighter during highly mobile, high-intensity operations.
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