With the British Armed Forces on active duty on several fronts, keeping them fed and content requires a massive planning exercise. Humayun Hussain looks at what's involved and who the main players in the sector are
"An army marches on its stomach," the emperor Napoleon once said - and it's still as true as it was 200 years ago. Even today, keeping an army, navy or air force well fed is a tough but crucial challenge.
Several thousand British servicemen are currently on active duty overseas, with 8,000 in Afghanistan and a little more than 5,000 in Iraq. Others are stationed in parts of the world such as Kosovo and the Falkland Islands. And while today's fighting forces may have access to all kinds of vehicles and support personnel, plus aircraft and ships, the fact remains that keeping troops well fed can be tricky, particularly where there are ongoing conflicts. Terrain in such areas can be rough and remote - to say nothing of the threat soldiers face from enemy fire.
At home in the UK, one major change that has been brought in to the business of feeding servicemen at their barracks has been the introduction of the Pay As You Dine (PAYD) system, which went live last year and is being rolled out at bases across all three of the Armed Forces.
Overseeing the catering policy and support for the Armed Forces, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, is the Defence Food Services Integrated Project Team (DFS IPT), based in Ensleigh, Bath. The DFS IPT is a tri-service HQ, and aside from delivering catering policy and guidance for the various regiments of the Army, and the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force - on exercise, in barracks or on operations worldwide - it manages food supply, concepts and information strategy, equipment and infrastructure, operational ration packs (ORPs), quality assurance, and catering, retail and leisure (CRL) contracts.
Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Hemingway heads the operations team at DFS IPT. "Before PAYD was introduced, a live-in serviceman's pay would automatically be deducted regardless of whether he had a meal at the barracks or not," he says. "Under PAYD, the site contractor provides a ‘core meal' [see left] offer for breakfast, lunch and dinner at a charge capped by us at £3.76. That way, a serviceman eats what he wants, with a wide range of additional main meals and snack items offered by the contractor at competitive rates."
With NAAFI (the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes) having gradually pulled out of the UK market, the list of current PAYD contractors features most of the major contract caterers, including Aramark, Avenance, Sodexho and Compass. Along with covering PAYD and retail and leisure facilities, their CRL contracts include such "soft" facilities services as waste management, pest control, storekeeping, reprographics and reception. Contracts are generally for a fixed term of seven years, with an extension period of three years. CRL PAYD is often part of a multi-activity contract (MAC), which could be for a single base site, or a super-MAC, which could be for a whole region, comprising several bases.
"We have 2,500 staff and provide catering, retail and leisure services to about 36,500 personnel on a daily basis," says Hannah Martin, spokesperson for Aramark's Defence Services Division. "The current service split is 23 Army sites, 14 RAF and five for the Navy. Each site's food menu cycle is carefully managed to ensure a balance of consumer satisfaction and commercial viability. We ask servicemen about their preferences on a site-by-site basis. A successful menu in one contract may not be right for another."
Chris Tyler, operations director for Avenance Defence Contracts Division, concurs. A relative newcomer to the defence sector, in 18 months, Avenance, with a staff of 1,600, has won army contracts for the East Midlands, Kent and Wessex regions.
"All our menus are fully bespoke, to suit the respective demands of the site we cater for," Tyler says. "Other than the normal restaurant dining facilities, we provide numerous bar and café facilities, as well as meal deals and grab-and-go offers in our on-site retail shops."
The worldwide food supply contractor for DFS IPT is Purple Foodservice Solutions (PFS), which took over the contract from 3663 in October last year. A consortium of Supreme Foodservice, DBC Foodservice and the Vestey Group, Purple's five-year, £150m contract - £90m for food purchase and £60m for service and provision - enables it to manage 1,500 different items, ranging from water to fresh, ambient, chilled and frozen foods for 1,200 military locations. These range from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Falkland Islands, Kosovo, Germany and the UK.
Graeme Pritchard, managing director of PFS, says: "When it comes to the overseas supply chain in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly the latter country, food deliveries can be very hazardous and logistically difficult."
He explains: "Fruit and vegetables can be sent by air freight via the RAF, but dry goods need to be sent by sea freight from Hampshire to Kabul. It can take up to eight or nine weeks with ships going to Karachi in Pakistan, then through the country and over the Khyber Pass and eventually into Afghanistan. Even though we work closely with the forces on the ground - and our sub-contractor, Supreme, sends personnel in military escorted convoys - we have taken hits from enemy fire where drivers have been killed, trucks destroyed and food supplies lost."
Recently, a spate of media headlines such as "Poor quality food is creating a Pot Noodle culture" have appeared over articles criticising the standard of food being served to the British forces. But both Pritchard and Hemingway vehemently deny that such comments have any factual basis and say that not only is the quality of ingredients, be they British or otherwise, high and measured to exacting standards, but the cooking is varied and military chefs are well-trained.
"We have improved our menus considerably," says Hemingway. "Even ORPs have been designed in a way where we have started to ensure that, in hot countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, we give soldiers supplements such as fruit purées, powder shakes and chewy bars."
Pritchard agrees and notes that the food which Purple supplies offers the best value for money, with both his company and the DFS IPT managing quality assurance.
"We want our servicemen to be fed the same standard of food in Kabul as they would get in Aldershot," he states. "They eat some of the best food compared with any other nation's military in the world, with far greater variety than one would get on American bases."
PAYD core meal
Fruit juice, fruit segments and cereal with milk. Main items include eggs, bacon, sausages, ham, cheese, beans, tomatoes, potatoes and fried bread. Side items include two slices of toast with butter or spread and preserve. Drinks include tea and coffee, milk and squash.
A main course with a hot protein item with side salad, vegetables, or a choice from the salad bar.
Three courses. Soup with roll or bread. Main course includes one roast option and a choice of the salad bar. Third course is dessert. Drinks include tea or coffee, water and squash.
Contract sites Catterick and Colchester Garrisons, along with regions of northern England, West Midlands and Wales. Navy South and South-west of England, and RAF High Wycombe. Overseas contracts are in the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island.
• Earlier this year, Sodexho Defence secured a five-year contract to manage soft services for the British forces in Cyprus, worth £20m and employing 800 staff. Sodexho will provide catering, retail shops, café-bars, pool resorts and beach clubs, plus waste management, cleaning and accommodation stores management.
"Sodexho has worked with the MoD since 1985," says Rebecca Symon, director of communications at Sodexho Defence, "and the MAC and super-MAC contracts we have with them are a crucial part of what we do. Our work isn't just about providing facilities, it's also about improving the quality of life for service personnel and their families."
Contract sites Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, MoD Whitehall in London, and the Army contract for the entire Scottish region.
• "We have worked with the MoD for the past 20 years," says Michael Richardson, sales director at ESS. "The majority of our contracts are MAC or super-MAC and primarily for the Army, though some are tri-service sites. We provide our own staff but, with some of the bigger sites, such as the contract for Scotland, we have military chefs working alongside ours."
Top 15 products bought by HM Armed Forces
Beef (tenderloin, striploin, £3.85m rump, diced)
Bottled water (mainly supplied £2.8m in Iraq and Afghanistan)
Chicken breast fillet £2.4m
Sliced back bacon £1.8m
Boneless lamb leg £1.5m
Semi-skimmed fresh milk £1.4m
Fresh potatoes and bakery £1.2m
Medium fresh eggs £1.0m
Cheddar cheese £0.8m
Minced beef £0.7m
Oven-ready chicken £0.7m
Pork loin £0.7m
Reduced salt and sugar £0.6m baked beans
Percentage of British produce supplied to HM Armed Forces
Whole eggs 100%
Fresh milk 100%
Whole potatoes 94%
Roots (carrots, parsnips, 89% onions, etc)
Fresh brassicas 87%
Fresh bakery/bread 86%
All figures per annum