Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady in a Briefing with Air Force Leadership at Little Rock Air Force Base in Little Rock, Arkansas

February 09, 2012

BRIGADIER MURRIE: Good, afternoon again, ma'am. We're thrilled to have you here to visit your first Air Force Food Transformation base. I know you had a chance to look at the slides a little before. I do want to point out, Mr. Mike Teal is on my staff -- he's kind of the architect for the Air Force Food Transformation. He's allowing me to brief, but if there's any hard questions we'll look right at him.

MRS. OBAMA: I got it. I do the same thing. (Laughter.)

BRIGADIER MURRIE: Okay. Next slide, please.

Ma'am, traditionally, chow halls are what we found in the military. We moved in the Air Force to "dining facility" name -- a little more elegant, but we really hadn't upgraded our meal choice, our menu variety, or anything for a few years. While it was nutritious, we were on a kind of a rotating menu, and the airmen said, you know what, can you beef it up a little? So we said, okay, let's look at it. And we did that, and that's how Food Transformation was born, on the feedback from our airmen.

Next slide. Our goal is to continue to provide service and quality, menu variety, and of course nutritious options. What Food Transformation has allowed us to do is open our dining facilities to the entire populous. Traditionally, they were for our airmen in the dorms or airmen in uniform and not open to the rest of the base -- and so we've been able to do that.

The other that, interestingly enough, we've been able to do with AirMark's help is all of the concessions on base, like at the bowling center or the golf course or that the airmen who are on a meal card -- the Air Force is paying for their meals -- can use that card and eat at different venues. And so that's increased their variety, too. And of course AirMark is working with us to make sure we have nutritional options for them at those concession.

Six bases so far. Of course, here at Little Rock, you can see the other six up there, and I mentioned the concessions already. And so far, it's going really well, as I'll show you in a couple of slides.

Next slide. DOD and menu standards, nutrition. Of course, that's got to be what we're concentrated on, and obviously with "Let's Move" being near and dear to your heart, we're working toward that with DOD menu standards, and we're making sure that we meet those. And that's through Dr. Woodson and Mr. Gordon making sure that we have those.

You can see here just the salad bar alone that we've beefed up -- it sounds like such a simple thing, but that's one thing that we did better. And you know it's a huge motivator for folks who come in and either eat in or take a salad out. We had that before but we just made it better. And access and opportunity and menu variety, once again, is what we did, and tying those into the menu standards for DOD, that will make it even better as we go forward.

Next slide. So here's where we are. Here's our report card right here. If you look at Food Transformation dining facilities versus the surveys that we get back and forth from that, you can see that there's about a 10-point increase, so we're doing better. And that's from the airmen themselves.

Once again, as I mentioned, increased meals. We just have more people showing up -- 561,000 meals this year -- as opposed to last year -- more. And even an increase in airmen in the dorms. I mean, not even just the families we had included, but the airmen are coming out of the dorms more to eat the variety that we have offered. So that's a win.

The biggest thing they asked us to do besides menu variety was increase the hours. The contract has allowed us to increase the labor force we have and save money. And by bundling the contracts for the six bases, we were able to do that and increase the hours. And before we basically had 6-8, 11-1, 5-7. And if you were an airmen going to school or something you couldn't eat at the dining facility because we weren't open. Now we're open from about 5:30 in the morning to about, in some cases, 1:00 for midnight meals. It depends on the base and the location.

And you can certainly see the satisfaction and great feedback from our retirees, our military spouses, our families. All ranks can eat together now. You can have a commander's call in here.

I talked to one of the spouses who had been a commander at a base and she had her key spouse meetings here -- put all the key spouses together and use the dining facility. So just great feedback from our retiree population. A different dining facility than they're used to, but they like it a lot. So we've got the scores to prove that this is working.

Next slide, please. Provisions on demand. This is really cool. This is like Chili's at the airport -- the grab-and-go. Only this is located where our airmen work, right on the flight line. That's hot meals and cold meals -- just incredibly popular. I couldn't believe the numbers when I read it -- over 100,000 meals served and we've only had two pods open at both Travis and Elmendorf since September. So folks are going in there and getting food. They don't have to get in their car and drive; they just walk next door. Maybe it's a couple of feet down the flight line. Just really a huge improvement. And the fact that we include hot meals, especially in the middle of the night -- really popular.

And so that's good. And Little Rock is going to get one in April right on their flight line, and I think they'll really enjoy that here.

Next slide. So the way ahead, we're going to keep on with this. We have seven bases that I point down here on the bottom of the slide that we're going to continue Food Transformation at. You'll see, as they show you around here, one of the things that we've done as an improvement is a cooking light station. Kind of like when you go and they prepare pasta in front of you. That's going to be open here. And the airmen, I think, are looking forward to that, as are families.

And so we're thrilled with Food Transformation. We've had a lot of lessons learned. It's a change in paradigm for us, for the airmen, for the folks who work in the dining facility, because we do train people to feed folks down range -- so we kind of had to get through some paradigm shifts and all that, but it's going really well. And the proof is in the pudding, and the folks are coming. So we're really excited about it.

And Colonel Robinson will share with you some Little Rock specifics.

COLONEL ROBINSON: Thank you, ma'am.

Again, ma'am, welcome. I'll take some time to share with you what Little Rock's approach has been to Food Transformation and improving the nutritional health of our airmen here at Little Rock Air Force Base.

First and foremost, though, it's been -- when you're done with the presentation here, the things we're going to show you and the people you're going to interact with, I think you'll find that it's come down to three simple things: It's been partnership, leadership, and innovation. We had to take this on to figure out how we're going to make it work and be successful -- and I think we've done that. We've got a good -- in fact, we're well on our way and we're going to continue with that.

The first challenge, though, was, how do we influence behavioral change in approach to nutrition and fitness? The team that worked this, we broke that down into two key aspects. One was education and the other was execution. And I say execution with regard to the decision points you face when you're coming to your menu choices.

The education part was already in place. We have a function called the Health and Wellness Center that resides within our medical group. And that's a staff of professional health care fitness and dietician specialties. They're well trained in that. And what they've done all along is, either an airman or his family independently seeks advice on how to improve their nutrition, or they're referred by the chain of command because we want to help them get healthier -- they go there. So we had that part pretty well down.

Where we got innovative was, as we brought on the Food Transformation Initiative was, the execution part was about to change. We had a new partner -- AirMark. We had a new venue; we had to improve our venues. So what were we going to do to make that happen? But the thing that we thought was key was we had to figure out how to be creative, make it appealing, healthy, affordable, accessible, and nutritional for our airmen, what we were going to do there.

So we focused, as General Murrie said, with the dining facility, because that's really our mainstay with how we feed our first-term airmen to give them the nutrition they need.

So in October of 2010, we started down that path with AirMark here, with that partnership. When we saw the goodness coming out of that we very quickly realized that this is a benefit that needs to be expanded to a broader audience. So we basically allowed the entire base population to partake in what was coming out of this venue in terms of improving nutrition.

And the nutritional health and fitness is key, because for the Air Force we get improved readiness, we get improved productivity, as well as resilience for the airmen and their families in the short term. But in the long term, the benefit is also potentially offset in health care concerns and costs down the road. So we took a look at that and made that happen.

But I would say the center point of our collaboration with us and AirMark was when our dieticians from the Health and Wellness Center got together with the executive chefs from AirMark and said, how can we make this better? How can we make this accessible, user friendly, and get the nutrition to our airmen that they need. And what happened was we came up with something that sounds familiar that's from your "Let's Move" campaign, but we call it the Rock Plate lunch.

So the dieticians and the chefs got together and figured out how to make a meal that consists of lean protein, non-starchy vegetables that's well balanced, well presented, and tasteful, so that it would make our airmen want to partake of that meal. And that's been very, very successful.

In the lower left quadrant as you look at it our outcomes pretty well speak for themselves and are consistent with what General Murrie said about the response. Basically, people voted with their feet -- more attendance here, more plates served, more meals served.

So we've got that momentum that we're going to seize. It's our responsibility and our challenge to keep that moving going forward. So we've got a way ahead to keep that -- to achieve our goals to get to 100 percent of the standards that we want to have.

General Murrie already mentioned the pod. We're going to have that installed in basically our flight line area. We drove some of that on the way here. That will be very near where our industrial work occurs with our maintainers and our flight line crews. So it's very accessible, healthy choices; they can pop in there, select from a wide array of healthy choices for their meals, and then have a quick meal and continue on with the work they have to do in the day.

The second thing about making this a pleasant dining experience was how can we improve the efficiency with which our customers and our patrons move through here so that they have a pleasant dining experience, can get to their food, and sit down and eat as quickly as they need to and get back to work or whatever they're going to do with their day? So we took a continuous process improvement look at it for how we can improve that productivity, get rid of the bottlenecks around the soda fountains and things of that nature.

And we were successful in securing funding of about just under $900,000 to make those improvements. So sometime this summer, about June or July, we're going to start making those renovations in this fine facility you see already around you. So, again, make that -- increase the pleasantry.

But the partnership and the collaboration on the Rock Plate was, I would say, somewhat unique and informal. But it was successful. So we're going to formalize that and circulate that around our peer wings to let them know that this is a way that you can go about that. But also, we're going to expand that and we're going to take the Rock Plate concept and expand that into a breakfast meal. So now, we can get two meals a day to our airmen with that healthy choice -- easy to decide what you want to do and it's something that they want to partake in.

I myself have dined at the DFAC here. And when I came to my decision point, I was faced with that cold salad bar which you're going to see. It looks fantastic, but the sizzling salad bar also looks fantastic. Not a bad dilemma to have. I opted for the sizzling salad bar with the Greek salad. But it was fantastic. I watched it prepared right there before me and it was a very, very -- it was one of the best salads I've had in a long time.

So that's a brief introduction. Subject to any questions or discussion from the table here, after that -- after we do that, what we'd like to do is show you around to the people who work very hard in the services to make this happen and deliver this service to our airmen every day, as well as let you meet with some of our airmen and Marines who benefit from the service that the force support provide with AirMark's collaboration here.

MRS. OBAMA: Terrific.

COLONEL ROBINSON: And, again, thank you for being here.

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Congratulations. (Applause.)

One thing I wanted to ask, particularly since we have some media here, is to just talk a bit about the readiness issue. Because I know that I have spoken to generals in the past who have talked about the state of health of incoming recruits and how that affects cost, training, readiness. I'd love to hear a bit about what you all were seeing over this particular generation.

COLONEL ROBINSON: Yes, absolutely. I would be happy to answer that, but if our medical group, Commander Colonel Jeter, has anything to say, I'll give him the first option as well.

COLONEL JETER: Yes, ma'am. I'm Colonel Ray Jeter. I'm the Medical Group Commander. The Air Force over the years has increased the rigor of our fitness requirements. Again, we've been changing the paradigm. When I first came in, we'd run a mile and a half, and then have a cookout afterwards. Nowadays, it's a little bit more rigorous and people are being challenged and sometimes it's actually affecting their decisions whether they're going to stay in or not.

This base I think took a very active approach in trying to help those members that were struggling to provide them every option available that we could to maybe reverse that and get them healthy through diet, through exercise regimes, through support from leadership. And it was fairly holistic. I think we've been really, really successful with that.

So, do I see this as the way ahead? I kind of do if we want to support our service members and their families.

DR. WOODSON: It's important to note that the military has always taken a lead in terms of setting standards for the nation. In 1947, after it was found that many recruits were undernourished coming in, the school lunch program was born. And now, we have an opportunity to take leadership in shaping nutritional attitudes for the nation as we face this epidemic of obesity and its consequences.

And so, in answer to your question, it really is a readiness issue. Many of our young Americans are not ready to enter military service because of weight concerns, and when they're in the service they have a harder time sustaining the program because of fitness issueS. So it's a problem.

MRS. OBAMA: And have you seen changes since implementing the Food Transformation and how service members responded in terms of how they feel?

COLONEL ROBINSON: I think they responded pretty well. We really tackled the physical fitness aspect first. And that I think manifested itself first and foremost because people would go to the AOR and Central Command in a very demanding environment, very hot, a lot of heavy lifting, very active, to get the mission done. And many people were exhausted and, frankly, couldn't accomplish the mission or just couldn't physically meet the demands in Iraq or Afghanistan.

So I think from the Air Force perspective that was our first sign. We've tackled very hard now the nutritional aspect, because the two definitely go hand in hand. I know for myself when I adopted the run several times a week and eating better, I come to work more upbeat, ready to perform, and I'm able to perform at my peak. And we have seen that result from around the Air Force.

And I think largely we're over the physical fitness piece and we're really very well involved in getting our hands around the nutritional aspect of it. But I think people understand that very much now.

GENERAL MURRIE: Yes, ma'am, we're working hard to make healthy sexy. Sorry, but that's what it is. (Laughter.)

MRS. OBAMA: Yes, that's right.

GENERAL MURRIE: So if you'll walk by the chicken nugget and do the chicken grilled strips or the sizzling salad or something like that -- and the Rock Plate does that without you knowing that we did it to you. It doesn't say, this is healthy, here you go. It just points out a little bit what to do. So if you're concentrating on your fitness, you need more protein or something like that, we've done that. You don't have to think about it and it looks cool. And so, that's what we're trying to do.

And you do folks who will say -- and that's the feedback from the airmen -- I feel better, you guys are providing me more options. They can take it out. They don't have to eat here, but they tend to eat here. It's improved our sense of Air Force community. So I think overall, we're heavily on the fitness first and nutrition is coming. And I think this will blend and we'll have a healthier workforce.

MRS. OBAMA: And how about cost? Has this been more expensive to implement?

MR. TEAL: Actually, ma'am, because we bundled all six bases into a single contract, we were actually able to save 8 percent. Saving money wasn't our objective; it was to make sure that we could make nutritious food more available to our airmen and expand the hours, because they were telling us the hours didn't meet the requirement. But we were very fortunate, we were still able to save 8 percent.

And we're confident that as we go forward -- and it's primarily -- again, we're bundling six or seven bases as opposed to seven different contracts, so we're able to achieve modest savings. But our goal was not to increase our costs.

MRS. OBAMA: Well, a lot of people think eating healthy costs more. And I know that time and again the military is showing that you can do both and it doesn't have to break the bank. Particularly how much is DOD spending on the costs related to obesity, weight issues, because I know that number is pretty staggering?

DR. WOODSON: So we spend about $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion a year in obesity-related health issues.

MR. TEAL: We're seeing that our food costs at a base that's under Food Transformation, there's no measurable difference between the food costs that we have at one of our regular bases. And we do track that. It's one of our standard metrics, what's our basic daily food allowance. And basically there's been no change.

MRS. OBAMA: Now, the real test -- because you're opening it up to families -- is how are the kids responding. And I know some of you have to have some kids. They're the toughest critics.

MR. TEAL: But actually, if you present it well and, as the General said, you make it fun. We were very surprised -- at the pod, within our top 10 sellers was celery sticks with hummus and cups of fruit. And these are the guys and gals that are fixing the aircraft. They call themselves the Knucklebusters. And you wouldn't expect those to be in the top 10. But if it's made to look appealing, they like it and it tastes good and it looks good -- then we'll sell it.

And that's what we're trying to do, make it not only more accessible, but make sure the presentation is there so that it looks good.

MRS. OBAMA: Excellent.

GENERAL MURRIE: Ma'am, we want you to go and actually look and see what we present.

MRS. OBAMA: All right, let's go see some food.

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady in a Briefing with Air Force Leadership at Little Rock Air Force Base in Little Rock, Arkansas Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320348

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