TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
The Vanwey Dining Facility is experiencing significant nutritional changes, at long last. More changes are coming, too, but there are numerous hoops to jump through first. New management has made strides in moving the DFAC in a healthier direction, though it’s not as easy as responding to requests with an overnight change.
An inspection was performed in the first part of 2017 through the Military Nutrition Environment Assessment Tool by Health Promotion Nutrition Program Manager Wendi Knowles. Though the DFAC has always had a good score, Knowles said the new management wanted better than “a good score.” They wanted that perfect score – 100 percent.
Now a year and a half as the contract manager, Davinna Allensworth has spearheaded changes that are moving the DFAC well on its way to that top score. But, it’s not just taking the feedback from the suggestion box into consideration. There are strict guidelines and requirements that are contracted through the facility, which provide an abundance of red tape. However, determined to provide healthier options and options that Airmen want, would have Allensworth and assistant manager Jessica Butler working tediously to accomplish the task at hand.
The first target was yogurt, and the team at the DFAC soon learned that the challenges were numerous.
“It wasn’t a matter of just picking another yogurt; it’s not that simple,” Butler said. “It took us months to get yogurt changed, and that was the first product we started with. There is a big process involved to make a small change. You have to find products that are linked and approved on our contract. Then you have to track down the product with the vendor, and see if there is a contract in place with that vendor.”
There are now six flavors of yogurt that are available with under 12 grams of sugar. Previously, the only options had at least 33 grams of sugar. So essentially, Airmen would have a cup of yogurt that had more sugar than a candy bar.
Sugar and sodium were the primary nutritional values they aimed to decrease. Other impactful, noticeable changes included sugar-free jelly, sugar-free syrup and low-sodium bacon. There has also been an influx of fruit added into the mix: blueberries, plums, peaches and cranberries. Half of the salad dressings available are light, and Airmen-approved. Drink options include zero-calorie vitamin water and vitamin D orange juice.
Where progress has been made, there are still constraints that limit the more immediate additions in variety. To get a new product for the DFAC, the product needs to be in stock with the prime vendor and be in the catalog. The vendor, U.S. Food Service, is contracted by Defense Logistics Agency. If the product is in the catalog and approved by DLA, it will be available to the facility. If not, then a request is processed through U.S. Food Service, DLA and in coordination with the Department of Defense agencies that the vendor supports the product’s addition to the catalog. In order for this to happen, U.S. Food Service figures how much product can be stocked in their warehouse, and the minimum requirement set by the company who manufactures the product.
The order normally comes by way of cases or pallets. If 30 cases are bought through the prime vendor each month, the DOD agencies need to buy all of the cases. This is done through pledges by each base, accounting for all 30 cases purchased. If that is not done, the product is discontinued by the prime vendor and the process has to start all over. New products at the DFAC can take six months or more. The facility will not order food that is not going to be consumed, meeting one of their goals to prevent waste.
Another struggle, according to Allensworth, is the mandate of preparing food exactly to the recipe.
“We don’t set the menu here, instead it’s sent to us from the headquarters in San Antonio,” Allensworth said. “So, we don’t have the flexibility to change it or move things around. We also are required to cook all food to the recipe as is. We cannot tailor things according to an Airman’s request.”
For example, there is a fiesta fish dish on the menu that consists of a piece of fish with corn salad on top. The corn salad can be served on the side, but cannot have additional seasoning or butter. The intent is that it’s served plain so as to fit each individual preference accordingly. Start plain, and add as you see fit.
“There’s a misconception that the cooks don’t season or flavor the food well, but in reality it’s in adherence with Air Force guidelines that restrict us from doing that,” Butler added.
While many suggestions and requests involve less substantive or nutrient-dense alternatives, the management team at the DFAC said a large amount of their feedback involves requests that cater to vegetarian diets.
Consider the holidays. There are meals served for the Airmen with all the traditional foods. Most Christmas and Thanksgiving tables are adorned with turkeys or hams or tenderloins, with side dishes to complement. For vegetarians on base, they are only able to feast on sides because their palate doesn’t welcome meat.
“We’ve made a purposeful intent with having a substitute,” Allensworth said. “We had a special pot of beans for the holiday meals this year, and we also added black beans, chick peas and lentils to the salad bar.”
The DFAC wouldn’t function without the dynamic management or the three cooks who are responsible for preparing meals each day to serve the 500 Airmen that flood the tables at the Vanwey. Cooks start at 4:30 in the morning and work until 6:30 at night. Menus are done in 28-day cycles, which means less chance of meals being repeated. Leftovers are also available for serving for 24 hours before they are thrown away.
There are limitations at the DFAC, but efforts are being made for improvements across the board. With patience and persistence, the new team leading the behind-the-scenes efforts have taken huge steps in helping promote and execute significant nutritional changes.