There are key components to a traditional Thanksgiving meal: turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and of course dessert.
Like the perfect recipe, planning, communication, a dedicated workforce and strong relationships are the key ingredients to the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support’s annual holiday meal support.
For more than 50 years, the agency has provided traditional Thanksgiving dishes to field kitchens, dining facilities and galleys in the United States, Europe, Middle East, Africa, and other locations around the world.
Troop Support’s Subsistence supply chain ensures food is out in time for the holiday, despite the effects the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is having on global supply chains.
This year, service members around the world received approximately:
• 5,706 whole turkeys
• 59,666 pounds of roasted turkeys
• 99,187 pounds of beef
• 51,994 pounds of ham
• 43,767 pounds of shrimp
• 38,400 pounds of sweet potatoes
• 68,465 pounds of pies and cakes
• 23,461 gallons of eggnog
• And many other holiday treats
A happy Thanksgiving for the warfighters is the goal
Ensuring that warfighters have a holiday meal on Thanksgiving and can celebrate even if they are thousands of miles away from home is the ultimate goal, said Robin Whaley, Subsistence chief of customer operations for the continental United States.
“Food is very emotional,” she said. “Knowing [the warfighters] can celebrate with their comrades is important not only to me, but the entire DLA Family. Having that meal you’re familiar with, that turkey, that mac and cheese, that ham, all of those comforts of home give them a little more comfort while they’re away.”
After the holidays, Whaley said Subsistence receives photos of troops celebrating Thanksgiving around the world, in decorated rooms seated around the turkey.
“That’s how we know we were successful,” Whaley said, “when we see them enjoying the meal.”
It’s a team effort
There’s another key ingredient in getting Thanksgiving meals out to warfighters around the world – the Subsistence workforce. Nearly every employee is involved in getting this meal to the tables, Whaley said.
Subsistence prepares for holiday meals every year, but there are a few things that may be a little overwhelming for someone new to the workforce.
“Probably the biggest shock to a new employee is how far in advance we start planning, and how closely we plan it, and how important it is,” said Sean Gemmell, chief of prime vendor supplier operations outside the continental United States. “Leadership tracks everything down the line. Everyone is keenly aware of how important these meals are.”
New employees are mentored by senior account managers, which helps them get up to speed, said Patricia Scott, Subsistence division chief of U.S. garrison feeding.
“Whether it’s holiday turkeys or a hurricane [such as Hurricane Ida], sooner or later somebody is going to get involved in a contingency, and that is a great teaching moment for what we’re all about,” she said.
Communication with vendors and customers is an around-the-clock job, with calls often coming in after hours on weekends, Scott said. That extra mile is what is needed to get the job done, she said.
“This is logistics, you can’t just send an email and think your job is done,” Scott said. “The job is not done until the food is delivered, wherever that may be. You’re an advocate for the customer, and you’re not out of it until that meal is delivered to the base. There is a responsibility for everything, and they are counting on you.”
Planning is critical
Subsistence started working in March to get Thanksgiving meals to service men and women overseas, said Gemmell.
“We’ve been planning well in advance, and we track everything very closely,” he said.
Some deliveries are taking place already, even though supply chain shipping timelines were extended from 60 to 90 days and from 90 to 120 days, he said.
Despite supply chain challenges, the Subsistence team worked hard to ensure food would arrive in time for the holiday.
“We are currently dealing with the same supply issues that the commercial industry is dealing with,” said Whaley. “DLA Troop Support has been working with our vendors well in advance of the holiday to reduce chances that the necessary items won’t be available on the big day.”
Every item is tracked from when it is ordered to when it is delivered to the customer, Whaley said.
“We track every delivery to every facility to make sure our customers receive what they need for the holiday,” Whaley said. “The pressure is on for us up until the day before Thanksgiving.”
Planning for Thanksgiving stateside starts a little later in the year, usually around Labor Day, said Scott. That’s when her team starts their weekly meetings to find out all the ingredients their customers need.
Many orders and deliveries are made during November leading up to the holiday, she said.
“It’s not a one size fits all answer because every base is doing things a little bit different because they have to watch their storage,” she said. “If you bring in 3,000 pounds of turkey, you have to have a place to store it. We’re very sensitive to their situation for storage because they don’t have warehouses.”
In-person dining is returning to dining halls this year, as opposed to last year when most meals were served in a grab-and-go style, Scott said.
In the United States, turkey is good to go all over, Scott said. There are orders for a variety of kinds of turkeys, from whole birds to just turkey breasts or legs, she said.
In addition, some units such as the National Guard don’t celebrate Thanksgiving on its national date, she said, so some flexibility is necessary.
Communication is key
Coordinating and communicating in advance with vendors and customers avoids delays before the holiday, Scott said.
“Knowing and coordinating in advance and doing all the logistical preparations allows us to expeditiously get the prime vendor to get another source and get it on the catalog as quickly as possible,” she said.
The strong relationships DLA has with its customers are incredibly important and help the agency weather uncertainty, she said.
“I can’t stress enough the great job that our account managers do in reaching out and developing relationships with customers,” Scott said. “There’s a real depth in those relationships. At this time, when there’s uncertainty in the supply chain, we count on those relationships so much.”