Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Testimony shows scope of meal problems at McCoy

Testimony shows scope of meal problems at McCoy

By Ryan J. Foley - The Associated Press
Posted : Sunday Jan 18, 2009 14:23:05 EST

MADISON, Wis. — Food service was so poor at one of the nation’s largest military training bases in 2005 and 2006 that meals were not available, bugs were mealtime companions and workers didn’t follow basic safety rules, according to testimony recently made public.

The Army blames the state of Wisconsin for mismanaging the multimillion-dollar food service contract at Fort McCoy under a program for blind vendors. A state official who oversaw the contract acknowledged problems but testified that shoddy Army facilities were largely at fault.

“Until the Army builds modern buildings of dining facilities for its soldiers, we will not be back there,” workforce development official Joseph D’Costa testified in an arbitration hearing last year. “The garrison buildings are not able to provide the environment for a pleasant food service experience for our soldiers.”

Fort McCoy spokeswoman Linda Fournier said it was the poor quality of the food, not the outdated buildings, that caused complaints from soldiers in 2005 and 2006. She said food service has improved under the current contractor and the Army has spent $14 million upgrading older dining facilities in the last two years.

“Fort McCoy is working diligently to provide superior dining facilities and dining services for its soldiers,” she said in a statement.

More than 100,000 reserve and active military personnel from all branches receive training at Fort McCoy every year. The western Wisconsin base has also served as the point of mobilization and demobilization for tens of thousands of troops who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The past problems were made public this month in records related to a federal lawsuit filed by the state asking a judge to throw out a $225,000 arbitration ruling in favor of the blind manager, Janet Dickey.

Dickey lost her job at the base in 2006 when the Army canceled the contract. An arbitration panel agreed last year that D’Costa failed to supervise her work, causing the contract to fail.

In 2003, the state Department of Workforce Development won the Army contract to serve meals to thousands of soldiers under the Randolph-Sheppard law that gives preference to blind vendors. The state hired Blackstone Consulting Inc., which has experience in meal service, as a subcontractor to run the operation alongside Dickey.

The Army was happy with the arrangement in the first two years, but service started to deteriorate in 2005.

A small and unreliable staff meant dining facilities opened later than they should have or, in some cases, not at all, records show. Soldiers and generals missed some meals and were forced to go to classes or training exercises on empty stomachs or late.

At that time, only two out of 16 buildings where food was served had air conditioning (Fournier said a majority of them now do). In the summers, workers were forced to open the doors because of the extreme heat in kitchens with ovens but that attracted flies and other bugs.

“As a result, insects, rodents, all kinds of creatures come in through the garrison buildings,” D’Costa testified. “And the soldiers started complaining, that this is not a good experience for them to have meals.”

In 2005, a metal bolt that came in a can of pork and beans was mistakenly served to one of the troops. The Army took a picture of it and demanded to know what happened; the manufacturer of the can and a worker who wasn’t paying attention were apparently to blame, according to testimony.

For the Christmas meal that year, hundreds of base employees and their families were nearly served roast beef that had been left in a warmer for 11 hours at an unsafe temperature. Workers were preparing to serve the meat but were stopped after Dickey objected, warning about food-borne illness, testimony shows.

The Army warned the state at least three times the contract was at risk if they did not correct the problems before it was canceled.

In July 2006, an Army contracting officer documented inadequate staffing levels and instances of running out of food and where undercooked chicken was served. He followed up the next month with a letter repeating those problems as well as a lack of sanitation by employees such as hand-washing and using hairnets.

D’Costa blamed Blackstone for cutting staff to save money and for not training those the company did hire on food safety. “Basic rudimentary rules were not being followed,” he said.

At least two of the workers got in legal trouble with military police — one for possessing drugs on the base and another for driving with a suspended license — and were fired, D’Costa testified.

He also said some delays were caused by a dishwasher carousel that repeatedly broke down. That problem led to longer lines and the use of disposable plates and silverware, he said.

“The dishwasher broke down so frequently ... that our soldiers were being fed without adequate plates, without adequate plastic silverware,” he said. “(The Army) put that equipment in knowing that equipment was deficient.”

Fournier said the carousel did not perform as the designers of the dining facility intended and has since been replaced.

The contract is now managed by contractor Austin & Associates but the Army is seeking competitive bids for the deal by June 30.

A coalition of advocates for the blind is lobbying the state to again seek the contract, saying improvements at Fort McCoy mean it is more likely to succeed this time. Under a national program, blind vendors have won about 40 contracts to manage military food service facilities.

But Department of Workforce Development spokesman Dick Jones said the state will not seek the contract because of the past problems. “We firmly believe better opportunities exist for people with disabilities,” he said in a statement.

__._,_.___ Troubles at Fort McCoy

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