A filling Mid menu

Healthier food draws good reviews at Naval Academy

September 07, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

Just weeks after a series of complications left some midshipmen without enough food, the Naval Academy debuted a healthier menu that appears to have left many feeling, well, full.

Instead of a breakfast of small amounts of sugar cereals or hamburger buns and gravy, or a dinner of one slice of pizza or one chicken strip, midshipmen have begun to devour ample portions of Kashi cereal, turkey tacos, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, baked fries and rye or wheat bread.

More than 20 midshipmen and parents who said the food was wanting after meals became mandatory last month under a new academy leadership team have noted a marked improvement since the rollout of the menu.

Some have lamented the virtual loss of "sliders" - a Navy nickname for greasy hamburgers sliding off a grill - but many were pleased about the healthier offerings.

"It's been really good, but I've always liked the food," Memphis, Tenn., native Blaine Moore said last night over a dish of marinated Venetian chicken, mashed potatoes and corn. To his left at another table, a midshipman roared when he sat down to eat.

Capt. Margaret Klein, the commandant of midshipmen, took responsibility for the food problems and attributed it to 15 meals a week being mandatory instead of six and an effort aimed at reducing waste by cutting portions.

Often in the previous weeks, there was likely enough food on hand, she and another senior officer said, but midshipmen might have been overwhelmed by the changes and not thought to ask for it.

"Whose fault is it? Probably mine for not anticipating that all these changes, which were geared toward their development, were thrown at them simultaneously," she said. "And for underestimating the fact that they weren't used to portion control."

After an article in The Sun last month about the complaints, students and parents - who said they had spent thousands of dollars on care packages to make up for what they felt their son or daughter wasn't getting - said the amount of food improved immediately. Administrators also began to allow midshipmen to buy food at Drydock, an on-campus restaurant that had been off limits except on weekends since the changes took hold.

Lt. Cmdr. Debra Rogers, the food service officer in charge of serving more than 13,000 meals a day - including such daunting volumes as 3,880 pounds of chicken for one meal - said she set out to make the new menu "healthier" and "more balanced" so that midshipmen could grow and repair tissue.

"My passion is food, and my passion is fitness," said Rogers, who previously served as an enlisted culinary specialist in the Navy. "We want to make them better students, so we have to provide them with the right food."

Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, who reviewed the next six weeks of the new menu at the request of The Sun, said it was "a step in the right direction.

"They do seem to have made an effort to increase the amount of whole wheat products and use turkey for burgers and sausage and bacon in their meals," said Cheskin, an associate professor of human nutrition at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health. "There's room for improvement, since they still have barbecue pork and beef frankfurters ... and high amounts of cheesy things, but they seem to be moving in the right direction."

No one seemed to be complaining about the Venetian chicken on one dinner table yesterday. Mids ate quickly , and went about the usual routines and traditions at academy mealtimes. Plebes sat upright and occasionally answered questions about the specific names of meals, one of many details they're required to memorize and repeat on command from upperclassmen.

Moore, a squad leader, said he has been using the new time together with those in his group to discuss geopolitical topics. He forwards readings to students that sit at his table, and they discuss them. This week, they talked about nuclear proliferation and the Republican debates, he said.

Kyle Szatkowski, a junior quantitative economics major from Las Vegas, said he thinks the portion control is an important step, given the ever-expanding amounts Americans eat at meals.

"It causes a lot of problems like obesity and other things, so I think it's important for us to learn here how to have a healthy lifestyle," he said.

Gavin Lippman, a senior Baltimore native who leads a battalion of midshipmen in the student chain of command, said making meals mandatory for all 4,400 midshipmen - many of whom previously took food out of the dining hall or skipped meals for athletic or other practice - was a struggle.

In particular, they had a hard time finding enough seats for Mids or to make room enough for squads of 12 at the same table, because King Hall, the dining facility, is being renovated and midshipmen eat in three areas.

"King Hall is the biggest thing we've had to focus on since the brigade's come back," said Lippman, 22. "Some of the issues are finally starting to taper off, but it's been a challenge."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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