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What the Recruiter Never Told You

Part 7 -- Chow Halls and Food Allowance


Continued from Part 6

Why is it that in the Navy, officers eat in a "wardroom," but enlisted people eat in a "mess?" The Army (who reportedly travels on its stomach), and the Marines eat in a "chow hall." The Air Force lauds it over the rest by eating in a "dining facility." In any event, the military promises to feed you, and they do so primarily by using three separate methods (yes, yes, folks...hold your emails....I know there are more than three, depending on whether you're TDY, and per diem, field conditions, etc., and such -- but I'm sticking to the "basics" here).


If you are enlisted and reside in the dormitory (or barracks, or whatever you want to call it), in most cases, you will be given your meals for free. Different services have different names for this. In the Air Force, it's called "being on a Meal Card." (This is a carry-over from the days when the Air Force actually issued a card that entitled someone to eat in the Dining Facility for Free -- in these days of computer automation, actual "Meal Cards" are rarely - if ever - used anymore.

Most chow halls offer four meals per day (breakfast, lunch, supper, and a "midnight meal."). There are even some that are open 24 hours per day.

Not too many years ago, meals consisted of one or two entrees, plus veggies, plus one or two dessert items. For breakfast you got scrambled eggs, cereal, bacon, toast, and SOS. That was it. Few choices, very little in the way of "healthy choices," and no "junk food." Because of concern that these "Free" taxpayer provided food items would fall into the wrong hands, there would be an NCO stationed at the doorways to make sure that nothing was taken out of the chow hall. I remember getting chewed out once for trying to take a half-eaten apple with me back to my room.

Those days are not only gone, but long-gone. Most dining facilities now give the choice of a full-blown meal with two or more entrees, or the fast-food (burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, fries, chicken) of your choice. For the health conscious, there is normally a "healthy-heart" menu, as well as a salad bar. Desserts are usually a choice of fruits, several styles and flavors of cakes, ice cream, Jell-O®, puddings, pies, and more. For breakfast one can choose anything between a small fruit cup to a full-fledged made-to-order omelet with all the side dishes. "Take out" cartons are freely available in many chow halls, and some dining facilities even have drive-through windows!

Other than a few exceptions (some military training centers, boot camp, while embarked on a vessel, while deployed, etc.), "KP Duty" is a thing of the past. Most military dining facilities are now contract operations (although there are still lots of military "cooks" around). You'll be interested to know that the military dining system is the number-one employer of disabled people in the United States.

Even with all the improvements in the past few years, most people who are "on a meal card" will tell you straight out that they think the particular chow hall on their particular base sucks. In my opinion, this is not so much reflective on the quality of the food (I've eaten in several hundred chow halls), but because there are many who would rather pocket a subsistence allowance and eat a microwave burrito instead. Another factor is even the best restaurant food starts to taste old, if you eat there every single meal, day in and day out.

One complaint that many folks have is that if duty causes them to miss a meal at the chow hall, they in effect "lose money" as they then have to buy food out of their own pocket. Although there are procedures to be reimbursed for "missed meals," they are paperwork intensive and usually require justifications and explanations to people one would rather not talk to (like the First Sergeant and/or the Commander).

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