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 new approach Wednesday 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 Outdated exercises such as bayonet drills are being eliminated in favor of core strength workouts more commonly practiced in the aerobics studio.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 performance 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."
Army leaders report fewer injuries and higher scores on physical fitness tests at bases where the new program has been tested. Top Army leaders are watching the developments closely, Hertling said.
For now, the changes are limited to basic and advance training sites — installations where Army brass has the most control over its soldiers' behavior. But Hertling said he is fielding serious inquiries from other Army commanders, as well as counterparts in the other service branches. He even envisions a time when MREs — a dietary staple in battle zones — are similarly designed.
The changes were on display Wednesday at the 787th Military Police Battalion's dining hall, where color-coded labels helped troops pick high-nutrient, protein-laden breakfast items instead of calorie-filled dishes that would sap their energy.
For generations, Army food has been considered average at best, and the diet fed to troops seldom took into account obesity or other long-range health risks. But those practices are evolving.
Sugary cereals and biscuits topped with sausage gravy were still available, but so were scoops of sunflower seeds, cottage cheese, salsa, yogurt and granola bars.
Drill sergeants didn't hesitate to scold soldiers who failed to take enough fruit or who opted for two cups of coffee but didn't include a glass of water to stay hydrated.
"We've changed from feeding soldiers to fueling the tactical athlete," said Hertling, a former West Point swimmer who continues to compete in triathlons.
Bammer said he begins to notice a difference in the physical performance and mental acuity of troops after roughly five weeks on the improved nutritional regimen.
Because the mess-hall changes are limited to training sites, soldiers serving at most other facilities around the world will still have easy access to typical military meals and to the abundance of fast food often available at bases.
Hertling and other officials emphasized the need to respond to trends in diet and health that come into the military from the civilian world.
More than 60 percent of recruits require immediate dental care before they can enter combat training. Female recruits report high levels of iron deficiency. And about 25 percent of soldiers starting basic training arrive with little or no organized physical training, whether team sports or even a high school physical education class.
The Army is gradually rolling out the new program at its five training installations — Fort Leonard Wood; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; and Fort Knox, Ky. The menu changes should be in place by February.
"We're trying to change a culture," Hertling said.
Doing so could take a while. At a briefing Wednesday, a tray of bear claws and other iced donuts awaited the health-conscious military leaders.
But the donuts remained untouched.
Associated Press Writer Susanne Schafer in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.