FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — At Army training sites across the nation, the mess hall is beginning to look different: Milk and juice dispensers are replacing soda fountains. Whole grains are being substituted for white bread and pasta.
The military increasingly believes that producing quality recruits starts at the dinner table during basic training, so it has started a new, more emphatic effort to change their eating habits. Now color-coded labels point the way to healthy items, and drill sergeants stand watch over the chow line, calling out soldiers who don't put enough fruit on their plates.
Many new soldiers have never given much thought to their diets, reflecting the poor food choices of a nation with more and more obese people.
"This is not (just) an Army problem," said Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command. "This is a civilian problem that we're receiving and fixing."
Army leaders unveiled the food program earlier this month at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood. It's the first substantial change to the Army's basic fitness training in decades.
The most visible changes will be in mess halls, but the program extends beyond food to overall health and fitness. The "soldier athlete" initiative is designed to prepare new recruits with training methods similar to those of elite athletes — including greater use of professional trainers, physical therapists, and strength and conditioning coaches.
The system also focuses more attention on injury prevention, flexibility and mobility, coordination and aerobic endurance. Outdated exercises such as bayonet drills are being eliminated in favor of core strength workouts more commonly practiced in the aerobics studio.
Healthy eating is deemed so essential that drill sergeants now include one-hour sessions on nutrition in addition to more traditional workouts.
Many recruits "have never been told how to properly eat," Staff Sgt. Travis Bammer said. "They think they can eat a candy bar for energy."