Unitized ration fuels troops when field kitchens arrive
Soldiers don’t live on MREs alone. In the earliest stages of deployment, the versatile Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) dominates field feeding. However, once field kitchens arrive, cooks can begin serving up to two hot meals per day with the Unitized Group Ration (UGR).
Developed by the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program (CFP) at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., the UGR streamlines the process of providing the highest-quality group feeding meals in the field. The UGR Heat and Serve (UGR-H&S) uses shelf-stable tray entrees while the UGR A-Ration (UGR-A) uses frozen entrees. Both versions are integrated with brand-name commercial items to form a complete meal.
“They’re very easy to prepare. Everything (on the UGR-A menu) is pre-cooked except for steak,” said Susan Harrington, project officer for the CFP’s Fielded Group Ration Improvement Program. “Since the prep time is significantly reduced, some cooks spend time spiffing up the meal by adding garnishes for a good presentation.”
Before the UGR was introduced in the mid-1990s, cooks had to order an average of 34 items and hope they all arrived together to enable a complete meal. The UGR packages the main course, side dishes, desserts, drink mixes, condiments, spices and other ingredients along with disposable trays, cups, flatware and trash bags into one or two stock order items. Each three-box module feeds 50.
Supplements, such as bread, milk, cold cereal, and when possible, enhancements such as fresh fruits and salads, are still ordered separately. Harrington also said soldiers like to eat them, especially the UGR-A. Similar to the MRE program, UGR menu items are regularly changed to satisfy consumer requests. One-week field evaluations are conducted annually to identify shortfalls and test new components.
“I have to make sure that every food item is acceptable to the warfighters,” Harrington said. “Most of the components do very well in our evaluations, and as more items become commercially-available, we can bring them into the UGR. We’ve introduced cappuccino to replace cocoa. Chai is another item we’re looking into. Little things like that really seem to increase acceptability.”
The UGR expanded from five to seven breakfast and 10 to 14 lunch or dinner menus for heat and serve and A-Rations in 2001.
During Operation Enduring Freedom, troops were eating the UGR-H&S after 12 days, according to Harrington. They’re the first hot meals served when kitchens are in place but refrigerators and freezers are unavailable.
UGR-H&S modules are unitized into fiberboard boxes and assembled at two government depots. The primary component is the shelf-stable entrée contained in a polymeric tray.
Trays are heated in boiling water, opened and served directly from the tray. Stocks of the older metal traycans are quickly leaving the inventory because of increased usage during Operation Enduring Freedom and should be entirely replaced with polymeric trays by next year, according to Harrington. The new polymeric trays mean no more special can openers and the cuts often inflicted from the jagged metal lid. By contrast, opening the polymeric tray is as simple as cutting through the foil-laminated plastic lid with any sharp instrument.
Shelf life of the UGR-H&S was dropped from three years to 18 months at 80 degrees F to allow for more commercially-available items. “We wanted to get away from the generic white label products and substitute with brand-name products. Warfighters want recognizable brands, like the ones they would eat at home. We eat with our eyes, and generic is not always eye-appealing,” Harrington said.
New UGR-H&S lunch or dinner items planned in the next two years include lasagna with vegetables, pork tamales, mashed potatoes with poultry gravy, jalapeno cheese spread, tapioca pudding and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. Among the new breakfast items are omelet with ham and potato, cinnamon swirls and banana nut loaf.
Harrington said the warfighters participating in Operation Enduring Freedom are providing immediate and helpful information as they are becoming more familiar with the products than they would during training exercises. Because of the continually poor response to heat and serve tray eggs, she said her program is investigating replacing them with dehydrated eggs in a boil-in-bag pouch.
Once established at a base camp with refrigerators and freezers, cooks can transition to the UGR-A as they become available. Warfighters were eating the UGR-A within 30 days after the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Cooks order a non-perishable module and a perishable module assembled and delivered directly by the vendor. Shelf life decreases to six months, but it’s a trade-off.
“The UGR-A is as close to restaurant or garrison-quality in the field as you can get,” Harrington said.
UGR-A menus were expanded and standardized with the UGR-H&S. Changes and improvements include new chicken fajitas and larger serving portions for the barbecue rib meat and hamburgers.
A new UGR-B is scheduled to replace the Unitized B Ration in 2003.
The Unitized B Ration comprises mostly canned and dehydrated components packaged in metal or nonmetallic containers, and is ordered mainly by the Marine Corps. The Unitized B Ration currently consists of 10 breakfast and 10 lunch or dinner menus with a shelf life of 24 months at 80 degrees F. They require a kitchen to prepare but not refrigeration.
Harrington said the Marines requested more commercial items to be included in the new UGR-B and anticipates offering shelf-stable alternatives to the UGR-A’s perishable components.
The UGR has other special-purpose options. An arctic supplement with extra snacks and beverages for cold weather climates is designed to provide extra calories and encourage fluid intake. In 2004, a medical diet supplement consisting of liquid foods, such as gelatin or instant breakfast drinks, will be revisited to replace cost-prohibitive medically-unique items with commercial foods.
“It’s designed for patients in a field hospital who require special diets due to illness or injury. Low quantities are ordered, and they’re expensive,” Harrington said.
Staying on top of consumer preferences and restaurant capabilities as well as field evaluations are ways CFP researchers ensure consumer satisfaction with the UGR now and into the future. “We will be continually updating feeding trends and introducing new, highly acceptable items into the system,” she said.