It was chow time at the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May and the galley was filled with recruits standing in an assembly line before a hot food buffet.

The lunch options on this particular day were steamed brown rice, steamed asparagus and steamed yellow squash, which were marked with a green sticker symbolizing eat liberally, chicken piccata, with an amber-colored sticker meaning eat in moderation, and sausage and marinara sauce on a long roll, marked with a red sticker meaning eat sparingly.

There are a lot of rules in the military, including when to eat and how much time is given for each meal — exactly 20 minutes for lunch starting from the moment the recruit sits his or her tray on the table. But when it comes to what to eat, the choice is theirs.

Lucky for them, military meals have gotten a major makeover for the better over the past few decades as a focus on nutrition and preventive wellness has come into the national spotlight.

While memories of military meals of the past may conjure up visions of a gray, tasteless lump on a plate and limited choices, today’s meals come with options and are created with taste and nutrition in mind, said Steve Harrell, health promotions manager at the U.S. Coast Guard base in Cape May and a former senior chief food service specialist.

“Because we have such a diverse population — men, women, from all areas of the country — it would be hard to say this is what you should eat, versus this is what you should eat, so we front load them with nutrition information and guidance and that way they can make sound choices based on their needs,” Harrell said.

“They have tons and tons of options. Take the salad bar, it’s not just iceberg lettuce, there’s kale and spinach, lot of dark leafy greens. Twenty-five to 30 years ago, recruits would be drinking coffee all day to keep them going through training, but now we know coffee is a diuretic which contradicts the need for constant hydration,” he said.

The importance of good nutrition and its effects on physical performance isn’t a new concept, he said. During the Revolutionary War, a surgeon general in the Continental army wrote a letter to the Consideration of the Officers of the Army of the United States titled “Directions For Preserving the Health of Soldiers,” which explained the correlation between diet and physical fitness. But it seems to have taken a while for the point to finally set in.

Now, it has.

“I can’t tell you how many nights I went to bed starving when I was a recruit,” Harrell said. “Now they get two performance bars in the evening before they brush their teeth.”

As he put it, the military has gotten “smarter”in terms of wellness, which is a benefit to everyone, including the U.S. taxpayers.

“Somebody that exercises on a daily basis, gets a good night’s sleep, gets all there fruits and vegetables, they’re going to be healthier, and in the long run, they’re going to experience less injuries, which is going to cost the Coast Guard less money and cost the tax payers less money,” Harrell said.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cape May has a team charged specifically with helping recruits and active duty personnel maintain their upmost health.

At the Cape May base, that team includes Senior Chief Food Service Specialist Chantel Schmitt who oversees the galley – the term used for the cafeteria – which includes personally taste-testing each new food item that goes on the menu, color-coding the items according to health standards, and posting a breakdown of its calorie and nutrition content on the buffet station; Perry Kremer, a certified medical adviser; a team of athletic trainers and rehabilitation specialists who work individually with each recruit; and Harrell, whose job is to help the Coast Guard members make smart choices.

“Like a personal trainer, I meet with each of the recruits when they first enter and teach them the basics of good nutrition and athletic training,” he said.

That goes as far as fitting each new recruit for their individual shoe size and selecting a brand of sneakers that allows for the most physical support during basic training. The U.S. Coast Guard currently has a contract with New Balance, an American brand.

Along with getting smarter about food choices, the U.S. Coast Guard has also changed its views on physical fitness.

“We’re not having our recruits do hundreds of sit-ups and push-ups, the kinds of exercises you did in high school. We’re incorporating more mobility exercises, to make sure their bodies move freely and easily to avoid injury,” Harrell said.

The Cape May Coast Guard base has an enormous, fully equipped gym facility – which several individuals said is the best and biggest gym in South Jersey – with hundreds of machines, including a “Cardio Nightmare,” with options that simulate climbing Mount Vesuvius, Mount Washington and the Eiffel Tower, as well as an indoor pool, a track, racquetball rooms, a sauna, a basketball court and several individual work out rooms.

Sean Edwards, a seaman apprentice who recently finished basic training, said he was pleasantly surprised by the food on base, which was something he had originally worried about.

“I never went hungry,” said Edwards, who was eating a “military meal” of steak and salad.

Contact Elisa Lala:

609-272-7260

@ACPressLala on Twitter

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Senior copy editor for the Press of Atlantic City. Have worked as a reporter, copy editor and news editor with the paper since 1985. A graduate of the University of Delaware.

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