Who Will Cook the Food?

By Captain Robert S Riche, U.S. Navy and Commander Robert O Brown, Supply Corps, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Editor, Jane's Fighting Ships  

The sailor on board ship is the wrong person to be cooking. We simply can no longer afford to do shipboard food service in the same manpower intensive, technologically inefficient manner that we have done it for generations. Four major trends are driving the need for a sea change.

  • The Navy budget has been declining faster than reductions in assigned missions. Faced with performing the same (or larger) mission with fewer assets, the Navy is forced to search for all reasonable economies.
  • Personnel costs comprise the largest single slice of the budget pie and therefore pose one of the largest targets for reduction. Ship's company-not construction or combat systems-constitute almost 50% of a ship's overall life-cycle costs.
  • Inserting the right technology aboard ship serves not only to increase combat capability but also to reduce shipboard manning requirements. Today's modern Aegis cruiser is approximately the same size and has essentially the same mission as a World War II light cruiser. It has many times the combat capabilities of its World War II predecessor, yet it is manned with well less than half the number of crew.
  • The Navy can achieve considerable savings by outsourcing a greater percentage of its nonmilitary functions.

What's Wrong with the System?

Food service is the most manpower-intensive daily process on board our ships, in no small part because it is at the lowest end of shipboard technology. Consider an Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyer, the newest class of surface combatant. What is striking about its food service operation compared to that of the World War II light cruiser is how little it has changed. The galley spaces still are dominated by ovens, kettles, griddles, and reefers. There is a package conveyor that runs from topside down to the reefer decks to facilitate food (and parts) onload, but it does not serve the galley.

Breakouts from the reefers and dry storage areas are moved the old fashioned way, through passageways and up ladders. Garbage is removed the same way. Large working parties still are the norm during major load-outs (about every 30 days), and even daily stores deliveries require most of the available food service attendants. On board this Arleigh Burke, nearly 10% of the crew is engaged in food service on a full-time basis, every day, making S-2 the largest division on the ship.

As reflected in Table 1, at any given time at least 9% of the underway force (14,000+ out of 160,000) has food service as a primary duty, at a cost of approximately $560 million a year. This payroll cost is more than twice the amount calculated for basic food allowances for an entire year.

How Can the Navy Do Better?

The Navy can reduce its food service manpower overhead only by changing its paradigm on shipboard food service. It must make more efficient those aspects of the current systems that are low technology and manpower intensive-by outsourcing the food preparation process, by making best use of commercial food preparation and service technologies, and by streamlining the food delivery process.

How would such a food service system work? First, rather than distributing raw food products all over the world to hundreds of relatively small production sites (shipboard galleys), the Navy should outsource the production of food consumed on board ship.

Outsourcing the food preparation process would allow the Navy to take advantage of emerging technologies without footing the bill for their development. There are hundreds of companies already involved in the manufacture and distribution of frozen, chilled, and reconstitutable foods and food products. Both frozen and cook-chill foods are in use by every major hotel and restaurant chain, are available in a wide variety of offerings, and can be procured to accommodate nearly every personal taste and dietary requirement, including cultural-specific, all-natural, low-fat, and low-sodium.

Moving to an increased reliance on prepared foods certainly would bring some complications. Requirements for refrigerated space, galley ovens, microwaves, and warmers probably would increase. The availability of "backup" dry provision stores would be reduced. There may be a perceived loss of food quality or menu variation.

These potential complications must be weighed against the significant advantages prepared foods would offer. Sanitation would be much improved and easier to maintain because of reduced raw food storage, meal preparation, spoilage, and waste. Insect infestation would be easier to control, given the use of fewer infestable food products and fewer transfers of such products during loadouts and underway replenishments. Food handling would be streamlined because everything would pack and store the same way. Inventory control would be greatly facilitated (count the meals as opposed to counting the ingredients and then trying to figure out if you have enough to make the meals). Losses to spoilage and counting errors would be reduced to near zero. Meal waste would be minimized, because there would be virtually no source for error in calculating meal acceptability factors. Breakdown-susceptible, cleaning-intensive food service equipment such as griddles and deep-fat fryers would go away.

This is not to imply that everything eaten on board ship must come from a freezer or a plastic bag. Fresh fruit and salad bars could be retained with a relatively small investment in talent and equipment. Cook-chill technologies are ideal for providing fresh soups (something warm before the midwatch). These services may require a few additional provisions, but they would require little in the way of specialized training or supervision and would not necessitate a large increase in either mess management specialist or food service assistant (MS or FSA) manning.

By outsourcing the great majority of its food production requirements, the Navy also would be able to take advantage of the latest efficiencies in packaging and packing. Navy logisticians could specify consistent container weights and cubes and design internal unit-packs that could be easily transported and stored on board all ship types, even those without state-of-the-art handling systems. To minimize the personnel required for food accounting, all of the containers (from pallet container down to individual serving) could be bar coded and labeled. This would permit computer-aided transportation tracking, receipt, storage, breakout, issue, accounting, menu planning, and reordering. Finally, food inventory and accounting-at this point greatly simplified-could be assumed by the shipboard storekeepers (SKs), the Navy's inventory experts.

To be truly effective in reducing manpower, this food service system also should simplify disposal and cleaning. The individual servings could come in packaging that includes utensils (disposable) and also serves as a plate. Biodegradable cups could be the standard for all beverages. Appropriate trash compactors, disposal chutes, conveyor systems, and dedicated waste storage all could be designed and/or designated to facilitate the clean-up process.

Enough Savings to Justify the Effort?

What sort of savings would justify changing to such a food service system? The current annual cost of food service, nearly $800 million (food allowance and payroll), provides a baseline for comparison.

Reductions on the order of two-thirds of all seagoing MS billets could be achieved by employing a combination of frozen, cook-chill, and salad-bar-type food service that requires little food-preparation training and minimum supervision (remember, the shipboard storekeepers would own the inventory and accounting). This would equate to elimination of nearly 5,000 of the current 7,509 seagoing MS billets.

FSA manning could be similarly reduced through reductions in food-preparation requirements, enhancements in disposal technology, and improvements in conveyor and packaging design to facilitate the movement of meals from storeroom to serving line. Less waste and fewer dishes also would also mean a lighter clean-up and sanitation load. A 65% reduction from the current 6,400 billets-another 4,100 billets-probably is realistic.

For every reduction in shipboard manning there is a corresponding reduction in shore-based training and rotation requirements. This training and rotation support tail is about 30% of the seagoing billets; every ten billets reduced at sea eliminates three billets ashore. Applying this 30% calculation to the 9,100 seagoing food service billets that could be eliminated results in a reduction of 2,700 shore billets-a total savings of more than 11,800 billets. Using a budget estimate/average of $40,000 per billet, eliminating 11,800 billets means a savings/cost avoidance of $472 million every year.

A portion of these savings would be required to finance ship conversions to support the proposed changes. Let's assume for discussion purposes that $75 million a year is set aside for engineering changes-griddles become ovens, warmers, and microwaves; food preparation tables become the package conveyors needed to move food quickly; scullery machines are completely eliminated or reengineered for limited use in cleaning and sanitizing small quantities of galley utensils and cookery. Even after these changes, the Navy still would save more than $397 million per year.

Some portion of the savings also would be required to offset the increased costs associated with paying someone else to prepare, package, and transport the foods. Applying $110 million of the billet savings to this effort would add almost 50% to the food budget, which then would total almost $350 million. Dividing that by the same 130 million shipboard meals served annually gives the Navy about $2.70 to spend per meal. This is not significantly different from the cost a frozen meal on the commissary shelf today, but we are confident that the Navy contracting establishment could get a better deal (both in quantity and quality) than any of us could get at the local market.

After designating funds for ship conversion and increased food costs, the Navy would stand to save on the order of $287 million a year. And there are other savings that don't always show up on a balance sheet. Warships are always constrained for space. Recent studies have concluded that each crew member removed from the ship saves a half ton of stores (food, fuel, personal gear), a quarter ton of support equipment, and 500 cubic feet of volume. This is space that could be used to increase combat power (additional days of strike ordnance, space for vertical-launch system cells) or improve crew quality of life.

What about Quality of Life?

Do we really want to serve our crews airline food or TV dinners? Worse yet, are we heading toward the nautical equivalent of meals-ready-to-eat? Don't our crews deserve better?

Recognizing that food service is a very important element of crew morale, the key question this proposal must address is whether the Navy can outsource food preparation and still maintain the current high standards of food quality. A glance at the shelves of your local commissary or supermarket reveals an increasing presence of prepackaged foods. More and more, a typical meal at home might include a main course and vegetables that come out of the freezer and go into the microwave, rolls heated in the oven, and dessert from the supermarket's central bakery. Today, how the food tastes-and how healthy it is-matters more to the consumer than the food's site of preparation. Prepackaging has become the norm, not the exception.

The Navy already is exploring a variety of concepts to reduce food service manning requirements for future warships. It recently sponsored a study, reported in the Journal of Food Service Systems, to explore the critical issue of acceptability of prepackaged foods:

Precooked frozen convenience foods were substituted for foods "prepared from scratch" in a recent effort to reduce the labor cost of food service operations. A total of 764 consumers [all active-duty Navy enlisted] evaluated the impact on food acceptance of substituting commercially prepared frozen foods in bulk for 140 existing prepared foods.... Customers rated the majority of "convenience" breakfast, lunch, and dinner foods between "just the same" to "somewhat better" for quality and appearance. These results suggest that selected "convenience foods" can be substituted for prepared food items without sacrificing customer satisfaction.

. . . Improvement in the quality and variety of the "convenience foods" now available to food service establishments offers a reasonable alternative to the traditional method of food preparation.

The study was admittedly of limited size, with more research certainly warranted, but it does indicate that serving prepackaged food on board ship has potential.

After distributing a slice of the manpower savings to finance ship conversions and increased food quality, it would be fair to dedicate some of the savings to improving shipboard quality of life. If we set aside, say, $50 million per year from the manpower savings, each ship would reap a windfall of $138,000 for improving mess decks and lounges, providing VCRs and televisions, installing exercise equipment, and providing crew morale and recreation services. And that would still leave a bottom line savings of $237 million a year-an amount sufficient to fund construction of an Arleigh Burke every four years.


If the Navy is going to reduce the life-cycle costs of its future ships through reduced manning, it will have to change the method by which it provides food service. This proposal certainly is not the only solution, but it represents one approach. Are there gaps? Of course. How will ships handle holiday meals and special visitors? What about fresh bakery products? What will this do to MS career paths? If we don't need these sailors to prepare food, do we still need them to man general quarters stations or to perform damage control planned maintenance? Will the savings in space be lost to increased freezer requirements? These and many other questions remain to be answered.

Our sailors at sea-be they the MSs cooking or the FSAs working hard right alongside them-perform outstanding work. We have nothing but respect for the professionalism and dedication of those who prepare our shipboard meals. But we also had enormous respect for the boiler technicians and machinist mates who served on board our first ships some 20 years ago. The Navy no longer relies on cruisers or destroyers with steam propulsion, having turned to more efficient alternate methods that require less manpower. Those sailors now make contributions in other ratings. Technology may not be ready to replace the MS completely, but we can't let old thinking keep us from considering possibilities for streamlining.

Navy and industry professionals expert in food service must be challenged and charged to provide the optimum solution. They must develop an answer to Captain Sharpe's question, and that answer must be better than "nearly 10% of all the sailors at sea."



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