Pentagon's food system wastes millions of dollars in enormous stockpiles

August 15, 1993|By Richard H. P. Sia | Richard H. P. Sia,Staff Writer

NORFOLK, Va. -- The Pentagon wastes tens of millions of dollars a year by running a bloated, inefficient food distribution network, with a stockpile so enormous that packaged food sometimes sits in storage for two years or more before reaching military mess halls.

Not only do supply managers buy too much too early in anticipation of actual needs, but they also fill too many warehouses and storage depots, needlessly driving up the cost to taxpayers of holding and transporting about 10,000 kinds of dry, refrigerated and frozen foods.

In fact, no one in the Defense Department really knows how much it costs taxpayers to feed 1.7 million active-duty troops.

When the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, examined the food supply system, it found that the Pentagon spent $800 million to buy food last year but that there was no way to account accurately for the money spent to store and distribute it.

Civilian and military officials, including the head of a major defense supply depot here at the Norfolk Naval Base, have been working hard in the past year to assert better control over the system. But even they concede that more needs to be done to avoid problems like these:

* Cases of canned doughnut mix in a storage room at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Va., sat unused for almost six years because sailors there preferred to eat doughnuts made from scratch.

* The galleys at Camp Pendleton, the huge Marine base in Southern California, went without black pepper for three months last summer despite repeated "high priority" orders sent to those in charge of the Pentagon's food depots.

* Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio received delivery of 3-year-old frozen fish sticks last fall, and other food shipments from depots in Tennessee and Virginia were tainted by rodent excrement.

"The whole Pentagon supply system is obsolete and grossly inefficient," said Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who cut defense inventory funding by $3.5 million last year to pressure the Pentagon to stop buying so much.

"Tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions a year, could be saved if we streamlined and modernized the operation," he said.

Under current plans, officials won't decide until 1996 whether to turn over much of the operation to more efficient commercial food distributors and won't close their four main food depots until 2000.

But after The Sun began asking about the food system, Robert L. Molino, deputy commander of the Defense Personnel Support Center, said those plans "will be greatly accelerated. Within two years, I hope we will have completely revamped the entire business system."

High costs, poor distribution

Difficulties with staggering inventories, excessive overhead costs and inefficient distribution are neither new to the Pentagon nor limited to food stocks, which make up less than 3 percent of the entire $31 billion supply of "consumable" items such as clothing and electronics.

But critics of the food supply system say it is overdue for an overhaul, especially when compared with the food service industry, where competition among companies and management innovations have reduced overhead, kept food prices low and provided efficient customer service.

These critics, including congressional investigators and industry executives, say Defense Secretary Les Aspin, who is being squeezed by tighter defense budgets, must find every possible cut in overhead expenses to avoid slashing programs that directly affect combat readiness.

"In the military, you have enormous facilities that do nothing but let the food sit there until the time comes to ship it out. That's very, very expensive," said Robert Anderson, a management consultant for the food industry in New Jersey.

At the Norfolk depot, a sprawling complex of 40 warehouses near the piers at the naval base, the commander said he had no reliable figures showing how much it costs him to deliver food to the bases and ships that are his regular "customers."

"All I can say is that it's in the millions of dollars," said Navy Capt. Philip S. Hannaford, who sends food to Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and such far-flung destinations as naval bases in Iceland, Spain and Italy and aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.

The inventory at the four main food depots is so large and turnover so slow that Army veterinarians who routinely do quality inspections have been extending the shelf lives of semi-perishable food stocks by one to two years beyond the manufacturer's recommended date.

Old food sits

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