The Strongest Army in the Middle East Cannot Even Feed Its Own Soldiers

Animals in the kitchens, mold in the salads, meat that isn’t fully cooked and E. Coli bacteria in other dishes. The Israeli army is feeding 200,000 people daily, but too many of them are left hungry and malnourished

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Serving lunch at an IDF canteen.
Serving lunch at an IDF dining room.Credit: Ofer Vaknin, Tzachi Dabush

“My daughter serves at a base in the center of the country. She told me that the food there is revolting. I served in the army as well. I told her, it’s not the Four Seasons.’ A few weeks later, she said to me, ‘Mom, I’m not spoiled but the food is inedible.’ They receive pre-cooked food in take-away dishes for reheating. Bottom line, I send her weekly money for food. I hadn’t planned on that when she enlisted. I’m familiar with the problem from my girlfriends who have sons in combat units. I hear they don’t have enough to eat.”

The above statement by Sivan (who asked to use an alias), the mother of a soldier serving on a typical base, was hardly surprising. Several parents of soldiers complained to us over the last week about army food- and soldiers back them up.

'It is unacceptable that soldiers do not receive nourishing and healthy food and sufficient quantities and that they should have to spend their salaries or their parents’ money on buying food'

Eran, who completed his compulsory service in the Nahal Brigade two years ago, said, “The food was really terrible, but the real problem was the small portions.” He said it was particularly bad on the bases where they did basic training and advanced training. Such soldiers had no way of supplementing their meals so they’d go hungry or fill up on slices of bread and condiments from the snack table, he complained.

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Eran said: “The problems I encountered were almost always on bases without a big budget. I saw systemic negligence, low standards, and just a lack of care. Wherever these problems arose, there were almost always sanitation issues, too. We’d find dead rodents in the kitchen area when they started emitting a smell.”

Lunchtime at Camp Ariel Sharon, also known as the City of Training Base, in southern Israel.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Army cuisine comes with its own folklore: Generations of soldiers grew up complaining about canned meat; hearing legends about vegetables dipped in baking soda, and living a reality where the greatest culinary pleasure was schnitzel on a Friday. But in a system serving 200,000 people a day, you have to be wary of food complaints; one kitchen with rats can sully the entire army’s image.

On our search for testimonies, we also spoke to soldiers who said they were happy with the food at bases for intelligence units and special forces, but for every happy one, dozens of soldiers complain about the quantity and quality of the food. This reality is reflected in statistics. A soldier spends on average 37 shekels ($11.34) a day on food during the course of their military service – where all their needs are supposed to be provided for, according to a survey by the Knesset Research Center in 2018. The study found that over 90 percent of soldiers bring food and meals from home, and 66 percent do so frequently. Some 55 percent of soldiers who brought food from home said they did so because the army food isn’t tasty.

When the minimum becomes the maximum

The army is providing substandard fare to its soldiers at a time when Israeli cuisine is enjoying a meteoric rise and Israeli chefs are winning prizes. Just last week, six Israeli restaurants made it into a list of the top 50 restaurants in the Middle East.

These complaints raise the question why, soldiers say they don’t have enough to eat in an army that spends billions on planes, submarines and pension payments. The military spends annually just over a billion shekels on catering out of a defense budget of over 70 billion shekels; about 750 million shekels goes to food, and the rest to manpower and infrastructure. When you divide that up by the number of soldiers and examine the tenders, you realize that it isn’t enough.

Soldiers enjoy a salad bar at the Ariel Sharon camp, southern Israel (the sign reads 'Bsari' literally meaning 'meaty' or 'meat kitchen' for kosher purposes).Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“The food is just terrible in too many bases. There are animals in the kitchens and dining rooms. The food is oily; meat isn’t fully cooked,” said Tzahi Dabush, an advisor to MK Nir Barkat, who has been following the issue closely. Dabush is an address for many soldiers who complain to him about food along with other issues related to the conditions of their service. “It is unacceptable that soldiers do not receive nourishing and healthy food and sufficient quantities and that they should have to spend their salaries or their parents’ money on buying food,” he stresses.

Dabush posts on his social media accounts pictures he received from soldiers showing the dire situation. “The food issue exists on rear bases, combat bases and combat support bases,” he says. “This happens in privatized dining halls, because the minimum tender requirements often become the maximum the operator provides. They try to cut costs, and the soldiers pay the price.”

The army promises to improve. A special team reviewing the issue over the past few months is supposed to present plans for comprehensive reform soon. But, this isn’t the first time the army has tried to overhaul its food service system.

The chaos of privatization

In the early 2000s, the military decided to privatize its meal services, but the process turned chaotic. In 2008, the army launched a pilot program on 26 bases in which catering companies provided all services from raw materials to food preparation. It halted the program in 2014, continuing a more limited program on a handful of bases.

Typical colorless food served to soldiers.Credit: Courtesy of Tzachi Dabush

A senior army officer told Haaretz that cost was one of the reasons the project was stopped. “Full privatization failed,” he said. “The cost per portion was far higher. The military had less flexibility and greater dependence on the concessionaire. The contracts were rigid and if a company failed, you had to wait until the contract was over [to get rid of them].”

The army offers are a wide range of dining models today, from full board through supplying just raw ingredients and civilian personnel to the familiar situation of soldiers preparing their own food. Currently, caterers operate 68 of the 378 military kitchens. They retain their own personnel. Another 15 are run by catering companies responsible for overall operation, from ingredients to personnel.

As a result, there are significant differences in the quality of the food served across the army. Some soldiers receive lunch worth 24 shekels ($7.35) while their comrades on more prestigious bases are served lunch worth much more.

The tenders vary between bases: A soldier on the Artillery Corps’ Camp Shivta will not receive the same food as served on a base for the intelligence unit 8200, because the latter is fighting to retain career personnel. “When the intelligence bases are moved to Be’er Sheva, the army will have to persuade people to go down there, and it will put an emphasis on the food served,” a senior catering industry source said. “Strong base commanders make sure that the results of privatization are positive, but, the food is bad on other bases, and there are many complaints.”

An army dining room. Not the most appetizing options. Credit: Courtesy of Tzachi Dabush

Putting cost over quality

These differences are particularly grating in cases where soldiers who need top quality food – combat soldiers who expend enormous energy on physical activity – receive lower quality food. “There is a failure here that the military has to address,” said Brig.Gen (res.) Nissim Peretz, a former senior officer in the Logistics Corps who headed the administration overseeing the relocation of units to the Negev. “If a combat soldier isn’t eating well, then somebody at headquarters in the Kirya should resign. It’s as simple as that. Of course, all soldiers deserve to eat well,” he said, referring to Tel Aviv's Kirya base, where the IDF headquarters and General Staff are located.

“In the Kirya, a soldier can get two portions of chicken, but in a lot of combat bases, soldiers are limited to one portion of pr otein – one schnitzel or one chicken breast,” said Dabush, Barkat’s adviser. “How can a combat soldier who burns so much energy get by with just one small portion of protein per meal? Combat soldiers need a lot of protein.”

According to a senior logistics corps officer at the Negev’s so-called city of training bases, the army has increased its budgets to improve meals and give soldiers two meat portions. He says the army will implement lessons learned from the training base process when it moves the Military Intelligence and Teleprocessing Corps bases to the Negev, where it will use the same food service model.

Israeli soldiers having lunch in their base.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Brig. Gen. (res) Agai Yehezkel, a former head of the Planning Division in the Logistics Corps says that the crux of the problem is the financial issue. “Catering at large bases is a challenge,” he says. “The army wants to the best price, while someone wants to make a profit. This is where trade-offs start.”

We heard similar claims in conversations with catering industry sources who said the army’s tenders emphasize low cost, not quality. “The lowest offer is the winner,” says Yigal Kravitz, CEO of Mevushelet, one of Israel’s largest institutional caterers with a 35 percent share of the army’s privatized catering market. “In the general catering market, tenders are split up between 70-percent cost and 30-percent quality. Some tenders are split 50-50. But the Defense Ministry’s policy is cost only. Quality costs money, and we live in an age with increased awareness of food quality.”

Another catering industry source says the lowest offer is the winner in 99 percent of the army’s catering tenders. Even when there are quality parameters, the scores are more or less equal, so suppliers know there is no reason to invest in quality. They offer soldiers the cheapest products – rice, pasta and chicken breasts

.

An army cook on board a ship. The subjects have no connection to the content of the article.Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

Moldy salads and E. Coli

With low costs seem seemingly the only factor, the plethora of complaints about the low quality of army food comes as no surprise. The issue has come up often in the media, with an investigative report on Channel 12 last July standing out. Lab samples were taken from four large bases where thousands of soldiers serve – Glilot Base and the Kirya in central Israel and the Bislach School for Infantry Corps and the city of training bases in the south. Channel 12’s findings showed bacteria in the food and dangerous sanitation conditions at the bases.

During a debate at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in November, a Logistics Corps representative said incidents of intestinal diseases in the army were declining. However, it appears there has been no change since. While tests were taken at the city of private bases, the three private companies named in the Channel 12 investigative report are still working with the Defense Ministry, despite it having the capability of voiding their contracts. Even at the School for Infantry Corps, the only base examined in the Channel 12 report operated directly by the army – where mold was found in salad and E. Coli bacteria in food – it seems the situation remains unchanged. Two weeks ago, Dabush posted on his Twitter account photos of inedible hamburgers served to Givati Brigade members. Soldiers from the base told him they couldn’t eat the hamburgers, so they ate rice for a week. “We felt like no one nobody cared,” one said.

A defense ministry spokesman commented: “The article’s reliance on false claims is surprising. Relevant ministry officials and the tenders committee examined Mevushelet’s bid, including the estimate, relative to competing offers. Various suppliers have different pricing and cost structure, each with its own costs and overheads.”

The ministry added: “The ministry’s supervision and quality control mechanism on tender bids is extremely broad. Suppliers must meet extensive conditions, such as a review by army professionals regarding food technology, health, kashrut and experience – in addition to Health Ministry regulations. A requirements document with technical specifications detail the parameters for food quality and service in the tenders. The ministry has administrative tools to supervise suppliers and ensure compliance with tender terms.

“The number of companies submitting offers in the Defense Ministry’s catering tenders has remained stable. The ministry and the army are working to increase the supplier pool of size. The decision of a particular supplier whether to submit a bid is at their sole discretion and does not attest to the quality of other suppliers.

“The Defense Ministry does not set the wages of catering employees and does not interfere with suppliers’ commercial calculations. However, it does examine whether the suppliers meet their commitments to employee rights. It evaluates the components and reasonableness of the bid, the supplier’s commitments and periodical audit by the Accountant General. Moreover, personnel-based catering contracts are linked to the minimum wage. A minimum-wage increase automatically leads to an increase in the overall monthly remuneration paid to the suppliers to prevent them from incurring losses.

Israeli soldiers eating cornflakes, nearby to the border with Lebanon.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“The ministry works subject to the provisions of the Mandatory Tenders Law and makes acquisitions in accordance with the demands of the army and its specifications for the products it wishes to purchase. The decision whether to take action over violation of terms of a tender is based on the review and findings of the relevant professionals overseeing contract compliance, with an emphasis on health, kashrut, and technical instructions.

“In view of the results of the Channel 12 report, the ministry conducted an examination of the City of Training Bases concessionaire. The concessionaire submitted two tests conducted on its own initiative. Results were within normal range for all criteria tested. In addition, the concessionaire took a number of steps in the wake of the investigative report, including thorough cleaning and disinfection of all kitchen units, explaining work procedures and food processes to all employees, strict control of personal hygiene of employees (gloves, head coverings, handwashing, etc.) and overall support. Catering is checked daily by the food technologist of Mabat LeNegev Operators and by tests conducted by the public health officer at the training base command.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s unit commented: “The IDF sees great importance in providing high quality, healthy meals to all its service personnel. Following an internal audit by the logistics and technology division, as well as dissatisfaction expressed by service personnel, we are taking steps to improve the nutrition throughout the IDF, with an emphasis on operational and training units.

“Concerning tenders for meals for soldiers, there are minimum conditions and quality standards required of suppliers submitting bids for tenders. Furthermore, there is ongoing supervision of all winning suppliers, as well as comprehensive quality control of all food items purchased, including lab tests and monitoring of food suppliers.

“Moreover, tests are collected from food samples from meals checked by the IDF’s health personnel.

“The Technological and Logistics Directorate is currently formulating a plan that will be implemented in the next few weeks and will impact the army’s entire nutritional approach.”

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