Industry expert: Feeding the forces

Tom Laskey, marketing director for government for Sodexo UK and Ireland, shares his insight into the future of military dining, and how the current trends for flexible, fresh food choices and tech-based delivery will shape service provision.

Satisfying the appetites of today’s armed forces personnel requires caterers to take a fresh approach to dining. Military life is pressured, and statistics show that recruitment and retention remain an ongoing challenge. Between 1st January and 30th December 2022, there was a 23.6% decrease in the number of people joining the UK armed forces and a 14.6% increase in those leaving, compared with the previous 12 months.

The reasons behind this are undoubtedly multi-faceted, yet we should never ignore the vital role that food can play in improving the quality of the whole ‘lived experience’ for our military customers. This is not only achieved via nutritional health and wellbeing, but also by providing catering environments that foster a strong sense of community and camaraderie. When we get this right, we can make a positive impact, boost morale and help to ensure operational readiness.

Understanding our customers is always the focal point and the military profile is changing. In the coming years we expect to see recruits from gen alpha – those born after 2010 – joining current gen z personnel. The expectations of military life from these key cohorts will likely accelerate current trends, both in food choices and the manner in which they are delivered.

A recent independent review recommended that “food should be more flexible” and "more like the real world”. We have already made progress in this space with the development of a creative and modern concept for our military clients that provides an all-day menu of freshly-prepared food, offers value for money and is delivered at speed – all of which will be critical factors moving forwards. Feedback from launched sites shows the service is already shifting perceptions of on-base catering – customer satisfaction at an early pilot site jumped from 56% to 84%.

Dietary tastes and preferences continue to gravitate towards health and wellbeing, and it is widely accepted that alcohol consumption is in decline. The concept answers the call for healthier options highlighted in research conducted for Sodexo by Ipsos MORI, where 67% of respondents said it was important. Daily hot menus balance traditional favourites with more plant-based dishes and globally inspired theme bars. Here, and across our retail outlets, we’re also reflecting the demand for more high-street-style grab-and-go choices, and increasing the use of digital ordering options via apps and kiosks.

These alone are not new trends, yet the growing desire for information that links food choices directly to individual physical and mental activities is something we’ve recognised and responded to via our Mindful Active programme. Meals are categorised under four pillars that show how each benefit the body and/or mind: fuel, focus, perform and restore.

How we source our produce and plan our menus will be in the spotlight too, with ethnic and cultural diversity being increasingly important, and our commitment to social value seeing us engage with more local and regional suppliers, niche brands, veteran-owned businesses and not-for-profit organisations. The ability to customise meals and snacks to individual taste and dietary preferences will also be essential as we continue to refine our offer.

If we’re to make a truly meaningful difference to the whole lived experience at military bases, catering spaces will need to be future fit and support modern lifestyles. For young recruits, again this is crucial. Many have spoken of the sense of isolation on base and our environments need to be designed to flex to provide comfortable and welcoming spaces that can act as social hubs.

By successfully combining these elements, and taking a more informed and holistic approach to military dining, we can help pave the way for healthier and more capable forces personnel.

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