The planning has been going on for months. Items are moved strategically around the world, sometimes airlifted when ground transportation methods can’t meet the deadline. Then once everything arrives, the preparation takes place – all to make sure that warfighters around the world will have a delicious Thanksgiving meal.
“Thanksgiving is the food service Super Bowl,” said Todd Lutz, customer operations division chief in the Subsistence supply chain. “It’s a huge thing. So much prep goes into a three-hour meal.”
For more than 50 years, DLA Troop Support has been providing traditional Thanksgiving food to field kitchens, dining facilities and galleys in the United States, Europe, Middle East, Africa and other locations around the world where service members are deployed.
Planning for the holiday starts six months out or more for some locations, Lutz said, to make sure the food is procured and gets to where it needs to be. Coordination starts early as well with the U.S. Transportation Command and other agencies.
“The typical [shipping] process is a bit challenging,” said Jasmine Brown, Subsistence branch chief and contracting officer for prime vendors in Europe, Southwest Asia and Alaska. “We transport our items based on the shelf life and whether the item is perishable or not. All the turkeys come from the continental United States.”
While these logistics are challenging in a typical year, add a global pandemic to the mix, and the stakes get even higher.
Brown said COVID-19 definitely had an impact on the supply chains.
“Prime vendors have really had to enforce contingency plans,” Brown said. “The vendors have been implementing all kinds of new methods to combat these issues that have never come up before.”
This year, there were 32 items on the supply chain’s holiday tracker coming from 12 vendors, Brown said.
“We were [inevitably] very successful this year,” she said. “And we do whatever we can, [including] airlifting or flying to get it there in time.”
This includes airlifting a shipment of crab legs to Japan so they would arrive in time for Thanksgiving, Brown said.
Subsistence teams also had to adapt to ongoing changes while still meeting the mission of supporting the warfighters, said Alfred Harris, branch chief for Subsistence’s customer operations support division for U.S. Africa Command and U.S. Central Command regions.
“The team had to be more flexible to change and still fulfill the mission of supporting the warfighters,” Harris said. “Because of COVID-19, many factories either shut-down, had personnel constraints or temporary disruptions in service. There was special emphasis placed on the availability of certain items due to manufacturer shortages caused by COVID-19.”
To meet the needs for the holiday, account managers had to consider all of these factors, in addition to delays in raw materials, that could impact the supply chain, he said.
In addition to shipping and supply challenges, many warfighters this year will not sit down for the typical Thanksgiving meal.
“Thanksgiving is going to be different,” said Air Force Technical Sgt. Margaret Radford, the facility manager for Halvorsen Dining Hall at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
At the Joint Base, Thanksgiving is usually a “big deal,” Radford said, with carving stations and leadership meeting and greeting staff and visiting family members.
The dining hall is only open at 25 percent capacity due to an increase in COVID-19 cases, and there are limitations placed on passes for visiting family members, Radford said.
“It’s the first major holiday of the year, the family-oriented holiday of the year,” Radford said. “If we can’t send them home to their family, we are their family. We have to bring that comfort to them.”
Public health concerns mean the carving stations with whole turkeys are eliminated, visitors will be limited, and all food will be served in a grab-and-go style, she said. Turkey breasts and hams will be sliced behind the serving line.
“Everything now has to be prepackaged and not contaminated with air,” she said. “We’ve had to transition how we do things to make it in accordance with public health guidelines to meet all of the COVID-19 restrictions.
Even the big displays of pastries, which often showcased the work of people on the base who like to bake, will not be up this year. Instead, the desserts will also be pre-packaged in grab-and-go containers.
No matter how different Thanksgiving dinner will look, or what it took to make sure all the ingredients were ready to get the meal on the table, DLA Troop Support did whatever possible to ensure that warfighters all over the world were able to have this taste of home, said Army Col. Eric McCoy, DLA Troop Support Subsistence director.
“Food is emotional, and this year more than ever, it’s so important that DLA Troop Support got the turkeys, hams and all the trimmings to our troops wherever they are stationed,” McCoy said. “Our supply chain takes the holidays very seriously. Our troops are far away from home, and they definitely look forward to this meal. Disappointing them is not an option.”
The sacrifices that warfighters make to serve the country can come with challenges and emotions such as loneliness, isolation or being homesick, Harris said, so it is DLA Troop Support’s duty to make sure they have every item they request for the holidays.
“The holiday meal, that taste of home, is a means for our warfighters to escape from the duties they signed up for and to remotely reflect on home and the positive memories that comes with it,” Harris said. “So it is our obligation as food service personnel to make every effort to recreate that feeling and emotion the warfighter would get if they were home. We can accomplish that through the subsistence we proudly provide.”