The military governs your diet: From pizza to burritos to new plastic pouches, the Pentagon wields shocking power in grocery aisle

The military's influence over food is like Texas' over history books: They buy so much that they run the show

Published August 15, 2015 8:00PM (EDT)

Cover detail from "Combat-Ready Kitchen"   (Penguin)
Cover detail from "Combat-Ready Kitchen" (Penguin)

Adapted from "Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shaped the Way You Eat"

59,422 breakfast sausage patties
98,220 eggs
21,082 packages sliced American cheese
2,451 containers frozen apple juice
13,500 packages julienned French fries
24,159 corn dogs
8,682 frozen burritos

To say the U.S. military buys in bulk is an understatement—the above shopping list is from a single prime vendor contract for facilities near Seattle, Washington, and Hermiston, Oregon, in 2002. The weekly grocery needs of the entire armed forces could pick clean whole regions of their number one agricultural products, leave bare-shelved commissaries across the country, and tie up battalions of baked‐goods manufacturers for months. It’s essentially one giant mouth munching the American landscape, and, despite commanding deep discounts on its purchases, with $3.8 billion in annual spending in 2011 alone, it is far and away the nation’s leading institutional grocery buyer. (In the private sector, the annual expenditures of behemoth food distributor Sysco and monster restaurateur McDonald’s exceed those of the Department of Defense.)

These dollars, managed by the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the military’s purchasing agency, affect the American food industry as might those of any big spender: red carpets and gold‐plated customer care, which means conversations between the agency and industry that probably go something like this: “Hello, Commander, any new contracts on the horizon? The crust was a little pale on the breakfast pastry? We’ll be right on that, sir. You’d like to add some functional ingredients to the processed cheese spread; what would that entail? You were approached by a tofu factory in Oregon about making a soy ginger noodle entrée? Very exciting, but wouldn’t it be easier for you if we just added a soy entrée to our regular line?” These accommodations may orient commercial production to mess halls and combat rations, but it’s not the military’s prodigious purchasing power that’s turned the food industry into G.I. Joe’s brainchild.

No, that happens at the Natick Center, which, in pursuing its mission to “actively leverage leading edge technologies to ensure the warfighter is provided the decisive edge in all aspects of combat feeding,” has infiltrated practically every packaged food in the land. Of course, many, if not most, of the lab’s daily tasks are humdrum—approving new items for the Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) ration, arranging for a small run of prototype plastic pouches with tear notches, and evaluating stainless steel serving pans for the navy are all par for the course. But there’s a whole other category of activity—identifying basic and applied science needs, finding and working with partners for these projects, and disseminating the interim and final results—that exerts a disproportionately large influence on the U.S. food system. This exaggerated power comes not from the size of Natick’s research budget, which is relatively small, but from the simple fact of having an overarching goal, a long-term plan and relentless focus—which, come to think of it, may be the three traits in life most important to making things happen.

The first step is a whole lot of listening. During the year, the Combat Feeding Program talks with “warfighters,” the official armed forces term for soldiers, about their wants and needs—more sandwiches, pizza, bagels, and wraps; fewer traditional meat and potatoes-type meals. It gets requests from the various services and agencies. For example, the army might complain: Our guys are sweating off fifteen pounds or getting heatstroke in the field kitchens. How about lowering the temps to below inferno level? The navy might implore: Can’t you find a way for us to get equipment onto a submarine other than sawing it up deckside? And it gets general direction from the secretary of defense—decrease the soldier’s physical and cognitive burden, reduce the logistics environmental footprint, enhance operational efficiency—who, in turn, gets his or her marching orders from the Defense Science Board, the military’s quadrennial plans, and presidential science and technology policies.

“The Army solicits the entire community in terms of what needs improvement in combat feeding,” explains Gerard “Gerry” Darsch, who was director of the DOD Combat Feeding Directorate from 1994 to 2013. “It could be something very simple. It could be something very complex. And it could be something that requires a lot of high-risk, high-pay-off investment. And not only do we solicit those joint statement of need proposals from each service, Natick’s team also generates potential joint statements of need in terms of where we think an investment in science and technology can bring new capability to the battlefield. You really have to have a vision in terms of looking over that fifth ridge, if you will, in terms of a potential solution that would impact the shelf life, the quality, minimize logistics, make it more lightweight, cost-effective, and also include the nutrition warfighters need—even the food-service equipment because that’s a major part of the program as well.”

All of this information is presented twice a year for approval to the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Research and Engineering Board (DOD CFREB), an internal group composed of brass from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and DLA, and chaired by an official from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. At each of these meetings, small adjustments are made. “In some cases, we recommend that programs be terminated; in others, that things be accelerated; and in still others, that dollars be shifted,” says Darsch. “What we do better than anybody else is we develop a ten-year program that specifically maps out the amount of time, what the end state of each research category needs to be, and a specific transition from basic research into technology demonstration and then through what we refer to as the ‘valley of death’— moving to commercialization.” At the end of the process, the Combat Feeding Program spits out a detailed set of research and development plans, complete with objectives, tasks, and timetables, for the year.

These projects generally fall into three categories, each of which corresponds to a number in that most shock‐and‐awe‐inspiring of documents, the Defense Budget Justification, the annual tome put together by the armed forces to persuade Congress to continue to fork out its more than half-trillion-dollar allowance. There is 6.1, basic scientific research, which is largely undertaken at universities and in DOD laboratories, of which there are eighty across the country. There is 6.2, applied research, or getting that science to actually do something useful; this happens at universities, DOD labs, nonprofits, and industry partners. And then there is 6.3, figuring out how that something useful can be manufactured; this part of the technology transition process is almost always parceled off to industry. (The Defense Department actually has four more categories, 6.4–6.7, which correspond to manufacturing the item and getting it into the field; these are the favored feeding ground of mammoth military contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.)

To carry out all these different kinds of research projects, the army has at its disposal an alphabet soup of joint ventures, some of which receive government funding, and therefore must abide by reporting requirements, and many of which do not—although they receive a host of other supports—and therefore occupy a vast, mysterious landscape about which little is known. These collaborative undertakings are one of the most important mechanisms through which the Natick Center influences the food industry. In fiscal year (FY) 2007, the earliest year for which I was allowed information, there were 275 such partnerships. There are the Broad Agency Announcements (BAAs), in which institutions and firms compete for basic research and development projects closely defined by the Combat Feeding Program; their benefit to the contractor is primarily financial. There are Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) awards, which fund businesses with fewer than five hundred employees to seek the answer to technological problems in the hope that this will spur the development of new products. In FY 2007, the Combat Feeding Program had eleven SBIR awards. Many of these were for the development of competing versions of solar-powered refrigerated containers, waste-to-energy converters, and individual beverage chillers; although spending on them was low, these projects may very well impact the consumer market of the future. Such straight-up contracts are cursed, however, by the need to comply with government purchasing rules, the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs), which require reports on everything from annual revenues and taxes to executive compensation, all laid out in a breezy 1,887‐page document.

So there are looser arrangements: Dual Use Science & Technology (DUST) partnerships in which both parties contribute funds and share the right to use the end product. For example, as Charles Patrick “Pat” Dunne, a retired Natick senior scientist, explains, “Microwave sterilization was really spearheaded by Natick through a dual use science and technology program we initiated with industry and academia. . . . Down the road we’re going to produce that in the military, and it’s going to become big in the commercial sector, too.” And the crown jewels of the Defense Department research program, Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) and Other Transactions (OTs). All those complaints businesses have about working with the government—burdensome and intrusive administrative regulations, book‐length proposals, demanding socioeconomic requirements, and heavy-handed managerial oversight? Gone. And the rewards? Staff time, services, laboratory facilities, equipment, and materials are theirs for the taking.

Still, that doesn’t explain why major food conglomerates such as Campbell Soup Company, ConAgra, Dr Pepper, Snapple Group, Frito‐Lay/PepsiCo, General Mills, Graphic Packaging, Hormel Foods, Kraft Foods Group, Mars Inc., Michael Foods, Procter & Gamble, Rexam PLC, SoPakCo, and Unilever are lining up to enter into cooperative agreements with the Combat Feeding Program. In FY 2007, Natick’s food division was involved in eighteen separate CRADAs, amounting to a finger in every promising new technology from mini vacuum cleaners for pathogens and membrane-based juice concentrators to high‐pressure processing for produce and nutrient‐fortified candy and bakery items; they even had an agreement—resulting in a lawsuit—to commercialize the army’s HooAH! energy bar. Big corporations get involved in CRADAs because they expect something in return: a piece of the vision Natick has for the future of food. As Kathy-Lynn Evangelos, second in charge at the Combat Feeding Directorate, points out, industry research tends to be at science’s margins and focused on consumer appeal rather than at the forefront of innovation. When companies work with the army’s subsistence department, whether they receive an exclusive patent or a head start on a breakthrough processing or packaging technology, they get the chance to dominate the market when new products based on it come shooting out of the pipeline.


According to lawmakers, making sure government‐funded research and development gets used in new commercial products is exactly what federal agencies should be doing. It’s called technology transfer and when it happens, it’s like a Disney movie for grown-ups: businesses pop up like flowers, employees break into song at their desks, bankers drape rainbows across the sky, and tax collectors tap-dance down the street.

The policy dates back to just after World War II, when the head of the wartime Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), Vannevar Bush, persuaded the government to invest in public science, primarily through universities, to maintain U.S. technological superiority for military readiness and as a deterrent to enemy hostilities. These activities were managed by civilian‐controlled laboratories working in close cooperation with the armed forces, and later other branches of the government. The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is one of these laboratories. (There are about seven hundred more, some big, some small, and each with a different focus.)

The federal government finances about one-third of all science and 
technology research and development in the United States, which in FY 2007 was about $370 billion (an investment two to three times that of our closest competitor, China). Of that, although expenditures are broken down about evenly among the three categories—basic, applied, and development—it is by far the most important sponsor of basic research at 59 percent, and relatively less important for development at 18 percent. In our sample year, defense spending on research and development was $82 billion, 60 percent of the federal total.

The truth is that within the rarified sphere of science and technology, the U.S. economy has a lot more in common with the socialism of the People’s Republic of China than it does with free-market economics. The fact that the government (and, within it, the Defense Department) is pretty much the only game in town—especially when it comes to basic science—means that research projects are put together with it in mind. You can study anything you want, but if you want to make a living at it—and most academics do—then it needs to be something that attracts funding. And that often means working on one of the many areas deemed essential to the armed forces.

Then there’s the overwhelming strength of DOD’s own planning apparatus. The yearly priorities set by trade and professional associations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, and the National Environmental Health Association have about as much teeth as that annual rite of self-flagellation, the New Year’s resolution, when compared with the regular bottom‐up and top‐down information gathering, concerted analysis, extremely long time frames (five, ten, twenty-five years), global perspective, and deep pockets (so forgiving when you make a mistake) of the strategy and goal setting of the U.S. military. From this come the precepts that are used to define a welter of specific science and technology projects, which are dispersed each year into the eagerly waving hands of academia, industry, nonprofits, and other government entities like strings of beads at a Mardi Gras parade.

The net effect of all this is that the Defense Department has a disproportionate influence on the direction of many industries, even if basic and applied science is only about a quarter of its research budget. As noted in a 2012 report by the House Committee on Armed Services, “Basic research is especially important in this process of innovation, as it often leads to new areas of knowledge, such as new materials, sensors, nanotechnology, and data extraction, etc., that in turn lead to new areas for development and commercial opportunity. . . . The predominance of basic research for DOD is carried out by the universities.”

DOD’s grip on the business sector is just as tight. “Sustaining Critical Sectors of the U.S. Defense Industrial Base,” a 2011 think tank report, poses the question, “Does the DIB [defense industrial base] function like a normal free market in which the forces of supply and demand dictate efficiency, innovation, and pricing?” and answers with a resounding no. The Defense Department sees absolutely nothing wrong with this. Close ties and careful guidance are needed to ensure that it has contractors in the areas it needs, when it needs them. In fact, the goal for the twenty‐first century is to strengthen its puppet master role. According to the House Committee on Armed Services, “[One of the] challenges to ensuring that the industrial base is positioned to support the needs of the nation in the 21st century . . . [is] the lack of a comprehensive DOD strategy for managing and maintaining an industrial base.”

So what? you might ask. Who cares as long as the end result is a wellspring of nifty gadgets and cool new products for us consumers?

There’s the rub. A now‐venerable 1986 UN report observes: “The development of military technologies has an effect on the direction of technological change that goes beyond the simple diversion of resources from civilian innovation. A set of factors—basic principles, technological preferences, performance requirements, nature of the demand—have a strong effect on the kind of technologies developed by the military, in ways that have reduced efficiency, slowed down civilian applications and distorted the overall direction of technical change.”

We do have a national industrial policy, one that has run roughshod over the free market of ideas, force‐feeding federal—largely DOD—research goals into the hungry craws of craven scientists. This model does not let the best science and technology appear and grow organically in response to a multitude of societal factors—in the case of food, the concerns of farmers, consumers, public health officials, and even the food industry itself—but rather they are chosen and directed along a preordained agenda set to achieve military dominance on the world stage.

Adapted from "Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shaped the Way You Eat" by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, in agreement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, 2015. All rights reserved.

By Anastacia Marx de Salcedo

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