WASHINGTON — Shopping for your family during the holidays may seem like feeding an army. Think again. Think about Uncle Sam.
He does feed the Army, not to mention the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines and the Coast Guard--whether on aircraft carriers or submarines, in dining halls, veterans hospitals or commissaries.
This year's holiday shopping list--and just for troop dining halls in Europe and the Middle East--includes:
--12,600 pounds fruitcake
--243,000 pounds cranberry sauce
--421,000 pounds sweet potatoes
--7,500 pounds hard candy
This doesn't take into consideration the 4.1 million tons of holiday food that were shipped overseas to be sold in commissaries throughout Europe and the Middle East, or the groceries for domestic troops.
And while you might plan your shopping list a day or two before you go to the store, Uncle Sam has to order for his Thanksgiving and Christmas larder by late spring.
Whether it's during the holidays or the rest of the year, peacetime or wartime, the logistics of feeding the military are more complicated than staging a Bob Hope special in the Persian Gulf.
The U.S. government is probably the largest single buyer of food in the world, feeding more than 9 million people daily at a cost of $5 billion annually.
Given the immensity of this task, the military's reputation, when it comes to defense spending and the service's lengthy lists of rules, specifications and acronyms, it's a wonder that anybody gets fed. In fact, the distribution network has so many tentacles that even the individuals entangled in it don't always agree how it operates.
Command central is located at the Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC), a barracks-like complex in South Philadelphia that covers 11 city blocks. Aside from its responsibility for food ("subsistence" in military parlance), DPSC buys medical supplies and clothes, houses the nation's only government-owned military-clothing facility and operates a lab that tests everything from the bullet resistance of helmets to the durability of GI boots.
Transporting the Food
Worldwide, there are about 1,700 individuals involved in buying, managing and transporting food for the military. Some work in the 23 warehouses in this country, buying fresh fruits and vegetables and storing frozen foods, or are employed in the four storage facilities that warehouse semi-perishables such as flour and sugar.
At the Philadelphia facility, about 650 employees are involved in procuring food, whether it's dehydrated, freeze-dried, frozen or canned.
Somebody has to buy condiments in self-serve packets--that's Judy Nordone. Nordone, who also buys eggs for the East Coast, has a map of the continental United States tacked on her bulletin board that delineates her egg-buying territory. Other procurement agents specialize in such items as turkeys or canned green beans.
DPSC receives orders by computer directly from its customers all over the world. If the items are not stocked, the orders go to the procurement division. Written solicitations are then sent to companies that have expressed an interest in selling, proposals are returned and DPSC chooses a bidder.
If the items are already in stock, the orders are sent to one of the country's 27 storage locations, which in turn deliver the frozen or semi-perishables to the customer. Milk, dairy products and eggs are supplied by direct delivery.
Similar to stockpiling arms, buying food for the military involves keeping a production base alive during peacetime in the event of war. In other words, the government buys a lot of food that it doesn't currently need. In 1987, for example, DPSC bought 516 million ready-to-eat meals at a cost of $172 million.
The rations, which have about a six-year shelf life, are stored in underground caves and above-ground warehouses around the world. They are rotated and used for field exercises prior to expiration.
The government buys food from both small and large companies, according to A. E. Cardone, assistant chief of contracting and production. Del Monte and Green Giant help feed the troops and Pillsbury supplies the bulk of the military's flour.
Made in United States
Not surprisingly, whatever DPSC buys has to be grown, manufactured or packaged in the United States. No items may be purchased from Communist countries, either, so military personnel in Europe can't buy Czechoslovakian hams in their local commissaries.
The buy-American regulation is bent only when it comes to buying highly perishable items, such as milk, for overseas units. (Nevertheless, commissaries in Turkey do sell Philadelphia Cream Cheese--airlifted because of its perishability. Most of the food for overseas goes by sea.)
The government often sets tedious specifications for food packaging, due to the need for durable containers to withstand shipping stresses, the heat of a desert or prolonged shelf life. Jellies, jams, cake mixes--even bacon--come in a can, particularly necessary for Navy vessels where glass containers are obviously impractical.