FORT LEE, Va. – “Trained food truck operator” can now be added to the resumes of 13 military members who attended a first-time Joint Culinary Center of Excellence instructional course here July 6-20.
The students from Fort Polk, La., Fort Bragg, N.C., and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., learned the ropes of running a Culinary Outpost Food Truck – the meal delivery platform that has become a familiar sight at numerous military installations in recent years.
The vehicles are meant to bring fresh, healthy food to Soldiers while they are supporting missions that make it difficult for them to travel to dining facilities, now known as “warrior restaurants.” It also provides them an incentive to use their meal card instead of paying out-of-pocket elsewhere for breakfast or lunch.
JCCoE, the Army’s food service administrator, introduced the centralized training course to reinforce and add consistency to what is being taught at various locations where the food trucks are operating. Put another way, they are “training the trainers” who will delivering instruction at the installation level. The initial run-through, according to primary course instructor Sgt. 1st Class Aquita Evans, was right on target.
“It went very well,” she said. “The students were engaged … and they actually got hands-on instruction from subject matter experts here on the ground.”
Evans is a noncommissioned officer assigned to JCCoE’s Futures and Modernization Division, which oversees training related to food truck operations. Heading up FMD is Ricky Gaines who offered additional details about the new course.
It was equally divided between classroom and hands-on training conducted inside and outside the mobile feeding platform, he elaborated. Among the subjects covered were general operation, vehicle maintenance, Army Food Management Information System operations, ration ordering, production schedules and safety.
Army food trucks have been around since 2017, amid a growing national appetite for pop-up restaurants catering to various food tastes. A crew of five can produce up to 200 meals in the vehicles, described as mobile feeding kitchens. The trucks are part of an Army strategy to update food service operations, providing Soldiers some flexibility in where, when and how they eat.
Food truck operations, according to Evans, contrast greatly with tactical feeding systems such as the Army’s mobile kitchen trailers. It requires “different skillsets,” she said, mainly citing the variances in missions and operational conditions.
For one, food trucks specialize in quick-ordering service, something most Army food service personnel are not generally acclimated to, said Gaines.
“The majority of our Soldiers are not trained or skilled at that,” he said. “When you look at our warrior restaurants, it’s more of a cafeteria-style facility. If you have a hundred servings of lasagna to bake, you’ll bake those servings and be prepared to serve upon request. Conversely, if you’re coming to a food truck and request a grilled Panini sandwich, the execution of the item requested would be different. You don’t have the time that you would have in a cafeteria-style facility.”
Army food trucks have been billed as a healthy-eating alternative, offering traditional menu items in addition to more nutritional options and making use of appliances such as air fryers, said Evans. With that in mind, at least one student said the training was on point.
“I feel like the training was highly instructional, and I’ve learned things I’ve never learned in the kitchen,” said Pfc. Keshawn Smith from Fort Polk.
Expressing his appreciation of the train-the-trainer concept, Staff Sgt. William Jordan said it was appropriately focused on skills that he can pass on to fellow culinarians at Fort Bragg where he’s stationed.
“Overall, it’s just a great program,” he acknowledged.
Gaines said his team will assess the training for effectiveness and make refinements to meet the needs of tomorrow.
“It is my goal and our plan here,” he said, “to formalize new equipment training and conduct it on a quarterly basis.”
In the meantime, food trucks are still trending up. It is a near-$3 billion industry, according to a March 2018 PBS report.
Jordan, the Fort Bragg Soldier, said the food truck idea may be trendy but is in line with the Army’s future needs.
“I feel like there may be a lot less dining facilities and a lot more food trucks in our future,” he said, “because it takes less manpower to run it, you can feed as many as 200 people, and the fact that it’s a truck rather than a whole building.”
The Army has 11 food trucks in operation and four standing up in the next several weeks, said Evans. Another five are scheduled to arrive at various installations toward the end of this year.