Coordinated effort provides '3 squares' for 4,000 cadets

More than 4,000 cadets gather for lunch inside Mitchell Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 10, 2009. A staff of 200 food service professionals prepare nearly 13,000 meals per day for cadets throughout the academic year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

More than 4,000 cadets gather for lunch inside Mitchell Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 10, 2009. A staff of 200 food service professionals prepare nearly 13,000 meals per day for cadets throughout the academic year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

Rosa Scott, Kim Guffin and Richard Foster begin preparations for the evening meal inside Mitchell Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 10, 2009. A staff of approximately 200 food service professionals prepares nearly 13,000 meals per day for cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

Rosa Scott, Kim Guffin and Richard Foster begin preparations for the evening meal inside Mitchell Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., Aug. 10, 2009. A staff of approximately 200 food service professionals prepares nearly 13,000 meals per day for cadets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ann Patton)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- How 200 or so food service staff members in Mitchell Hall manage to prepare, serve and clear 4,600 breakfasts, 4,500 lunches and up to 3,800 evening meals for hungry cadets during the school year is neither a mystery nor a miracle. 

"It's a system and a system that works," said dietician Shelly Morales. 

Veronica Vela, assistant food services chief, added, "We have very good coordination between the kitchen and wait staffs." 

Of the 200 staff, 120 are waiters, 66 are in production, about a dozen staff the warehouse, and the remainder serves as administrative staff. 

Cadets have only 20 minutes to eat breakfast and 20 minutes for lunch on weekdays. Both meals are mandatory Monday through Friday. The budget per cadet for three meals per day is $10.80. Breakfast and lunch are served family style and dinners by buffet. Mitchell Hall has 474 tables on the main floor and five on the staff tower. 

The staff day begins long before the crack of dawn. Cooks arrive at 3:30 a.m., followed by the waiters between 5:30 and 6 a.m. Cadet flyers arrive first at 5:30 a.m., with the remainder of the wing at 7:25 a.m. on weekdays. 

Between 7 and 7:30 a.m., lunch preparations get underway. After dinner is served and cleared, preparations begin for setting up for breakfast. Between meals, more than 30,000 serving items must be washed and dried. 

But meal preparations begin months in advance by planning menus in eight-week cycles and weeks in advance by ordering foodstuffs. 

"All our food is ordered five weeks in advance," said Frank Barfield, cadet food service director, who compared cadet food service to the food service industry as a whole in terms of its enormity. "Most food service operations deal in cases; we deal in palettes." 

Pleasing all the 4,600 palettes represented at meal time all the time isn't easy, Ms. Vela said, but cadets do have their favorites. Ms. Morales said the staff get compliments on teriyaki chicken, and "They go crazy about breakfast burritos." 

A glance at August's offerings includes Belgian waffles with hot blueberry sauce, crusted pork loin with scalloped apples, mushu vegetable wrap, roast turkey, roast beef au jus, "grandma's cookies," steamship round roast beef, chicken tetrazzini, pumpkin pie, traditional American fare like scrambled eggs and cheeseburgers, plus a wide array of fresh fruits, vegetables, salads, breads, drinks and condiments. 

There are also regular ethnic specialties, birthday dinners and Sunday brunch prime rib once a month and rib-eye and seafood buffets once a quarter and tasting events to gauge cadets' reactions to possible menu additions. 

"(The cadets) eat very well," Mr. Barfield said. 

In addition to serving three meals a day, seven days a week, the food staff supports the commandant for cadet-related events and prepares food for five balls a year, four class banquets, burritos, pizza and subs for squadron and group events, spirit dinners, sports players' specials, five-course meals for social etiquette training, tailgates and about 3,500 box lunches a week. In addition, the staff prepares all meals for all events and training in Jacks Valley and recently shipped three hot meals a day to the dormitories for cadets affected with the H1N1 virus. 

The Mitchell Hall facility is now in stage three of a six-stage renovation, which Mr. Barfield said will update the infrastructure and increase the efficiency of moving food from the back door to cadet tables. 

Equipment additions include a new deep fat fryer, combination ovens for fryable and bakeable items, and slow cooking ovens which produce juicier and moister products. 

Mitchell Hall staff is on the job during winter storms as well and operate with the help of cadets. Not even a blizzard keeps them from their appointed rounds in the kitchen and dining area in keeping the cadet wing well-fed and fit to fight.

"They go above and beyond and step up to the plate when we're short-handed and do a great job," he said.