Feeding the 5000 in Afghanistan
Feeding the 5,000 is not as easy as the biblical sharing of the bread and fish. It takes an enormous effort from a small but dedicated team of caterers and chefs – made all the more difficult by the fact that these chefs are working in the middle of the desert at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.
The dining facility at Camp Bastion1 has the mammoth task of feeding up to 4,900 people a day. On a normal day it averages 3,700 people. The work force behind the scenes consists of 50 UK military and Sri Lankan civilian staff. The military personnel are from the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade and from 7 Brigade based in Germany. They work 7 days a week, which equates to approx. one chef for every 123 soldiers. The chefs work 12 hours on, 12 hours off and every day follows the same routine and are involved in all aspects of catering – preparing, serving, and clearing up of every meal.
To feed almost 5,000 people requires a lot of food. On a weekly basis 8.8 tonnes of potatoes are used; 7.5 tonnes of chips; 1.4 tonnes of sausages; 2.3 tonnes of bacon; 5.9 tonnes of beef and 12.7 tonnes of chicken. In addition to that 2,250 litres of water are used.
The man in charge of this enormous undertaking is WO2 Ben Stephenson, Royal Logistical Corps, who is the Regimental Catering Warrant Officer (RCWO). He has served almost 22 years in the Army and this is the largest kitchen that he has ever run. He receives less than £4 for every service person in theatre per day and with this amount he has to order adequate supplies to feed them.
There are five full meals served a day – breakfast, lunch, guard, evening and night meals. In addition, hot container meals and about 500 packed meals a day are prepared for those not able to get to the dining facility. There is in addition a requirement to provide meals for the hospital patients, who often have dietary and cultural needs to be catered for. The kitchen also provides hot or cold buffets for VIPs and on request provides food for individual BBQ’s.
Royal Navy Able Seaman Jason Hitchcock, aged 20, from Bridgewater, Somerset is one of the Chefs working at Camp Bastion. His previous job was with HMS Cornwall during its eight month deployment to the Gulf. This is his first tour to Afghanistan. He volunteered to come to Bastion because he wanted do something different. He said: “Here I don’t have to worry about the sea state and things falling off surfaces. I do the same job out here, but on HMS Cornwall I was preparing for 280, here it is up to 5,000,”
“The best thing out here is being part of a team, although I miss going home at weekends.”
The RCWO has to make the decision on what the menu will be each day. This is not as easy as it would be for a chef in the UK, with all of the food required in theatre having to be planned and ordered weeks in advance. There is a long and complex international supply chain for all food which is transported in from the UK on container ships through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal and onto Karachi, where the ISO containers are transferred to civilian trucks and driven through Pakistan to Afghanistan. Along the way there are the inevitable bureaucratic challenges to overcome. Between 25 and 40 ISO containers arrive at the kitchen every three days. In addition, five tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables arrives by aircraft three times a week. This causes further difficulties because supplies of fresh produce are constrained to five tonnes and in the summer there is always a demand for more.
The final difficulty to overcome is the working conditions. A new kitchen is planned to open in September, but until then the kitchen facility is housed in a number of large tents. Lance Corporal Losalini Naitau, Royal Logistic Corps, 29, from Fiji, has been in the Army seven years. It is also her first time in Afghanistan. She said of the working conditions: “The heat in the kitchen can be unbearable at times, so it makes the job more challenging. We work long hours, so you have to enjoy the job.”
Catering staff are also involved with the provision of rations to over 50 Forward Operating Bases; maintaining the ration store and security of the 63 ISO containers required for storage; receipt and storage of all rations and ensuring that 14 days’ worth of stock is maintained.
Marine Alex Fairbanks, 29, from Maidstone, Kent, recently switched to the Chef branch due to injury. He likes the job as it is all new at the moment. He said of the job: “It is quite easy; it’s a bit like being on a production line. This morning I spent 6 hours making baguettes and on nights I can do 8 hours making salads and coleslaws. I am used to catering for a small number of Marines, not 1,000s.”
WO2 Ben Stephenson is justifiably proud of his team, the standard of food produced and the hard work and commitment that everyone puts in to ensure a nutritional, varied and tasty diet is provided. He said: “All in all, the catering department provides a versatile, diverse and flexible service ensuring that all feeding requirements in theatre are met, to the best that can be achieved, with the resources in place.”