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Mealtimes leave Mids hungry for more

The Baltimore Sun

Gravy for breakfast. Sandwiches on moldy bread for lunch. One slice of pizza for dinner.

Midshipmen at the Naval Academy have discovered an unexpected downside of the new superintendent's requirement that everyone eat on campus: There's not enough food, and what there is has been less than appetizing.

Since classes began last week, Mids and their parents have been complaining about the quality and quantity of food at the meals they must eat together.

Capt. Margaret Klein, commandant of midshipmen, blamed the shortage of food on an increase in the number of meals served, a menu "overhaul" and a renovation of King Hall, the dining hall where 4,400 Mids now eat three meals a day.

"The superintendent and I both are very committed to ensuring that the brigade receives the best food service available," said Klein, whose position is similar to a dean of students. "These problems came to our attention in the past week or so. ... We're doing everything we can to fix that as soon as we can."

Klein and Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, who arrived in June to lead the military college, announced sweeping changes in Annapolis, cutting the free time of midshipmen and their ability to participate in nonmilitary extracurricular activities, such as singing groups.

They also require them to study from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day and attend at least 15 meals a week. Before, they had to attend six, meaning that the academy went from providing a minimum of 26,400 meals a week to 66,000. The first mandatory meal for the Mids returning from summer training was Aug. 16.

Klein said things have improved in recent days, including on Thursday, when she ate tuna casserole with the Mids and did not see anyone lacking.

Several midshipmen, however, related different experiences earlier in the week, such as one breakfast when some tables ran out of biscuits - but not gravy - and cereal. At one lunch, cold-cut sandwiches were served with bread, some of which had mold, then tortillas when the bread ran out. At dinner, midshipmen - even large varsity athletes - got one slice of pizza.

"My son is an athlete, and one slice of pizza for what is essentially a grown man isn't enough. They are not getting fed," said the mother of one midshipman in a telephone interview from their home on the West Coast.

The parents asked not to be identified for fear their sons or daughters would be reprimanded for disclosing the problems. Midshipmen asked for anonymity because they had not been authorized by the academy to speak about the matter.

At the academy, food is served family-style to tables of 12 midshipmen. On many nights - one midshipman said every night last week for him - the main dish ran out after eight servings, and midshipmen who had gotten portions had to share with those who got nothing.

"I don't question the changes that were made, because that's not for me to say whether or not they have mandatory meals or anything like that," said another mother, whose son is a varsity athlete. "But I feel very strongly that if changes were going to be made, that appropriate planning should have been done ahead of time."

She had a local grocery store deliver him a carton of food.

Nightly at "Gate Zero," a small entrance to the academy that borders downtown Annapolis, there have been long lines to pick up delivery food. Mids order everything from pizzas to Chick & Ruth's Delly milkshakes.

Managers at several pizza outlets - including Papa John's and Today's Pizza - said they've seen a surge in orders, well beyond the hundreds per week they've delivered in previous semesters.

Other proprietors in Annapolis, however, worry about the local economic impact of not having hordes of hungry midshipmen descending on downtown, eating and spending money.

"We love our midshipmen, and they are a very strong base of customers for us," said Nancy Giera, who owns the Annapolis Ice Cream Co. with her husband. They are considering shuffling staff schedules toward the weekend because of the dropoff. "We want to wait and see how much it changes. Hopefully, all that pent-up demand for ice cream will bring them here when they do get off."

Not everyone sees the food problem as a new development. Several midshipmen said the food at King Hall has always been bad and speculated that the recent griping is probably more due to the fact that everyone is having to eat it now, as opposed to before, when they could go to town or stop by Drydock, an eatery on base. They can't buy food there anymore, except on the weekends.

"The brigade is notorious for never being happy with the food," one midshipman said in an e-mail, a fact that Klein said was borne out in recent surveys.

"It has always been so-so," said another. "Mids will never stop complaining about King Hall."

The giant dining facility - where midshipmen are known to eat at breakneck speed - has been under renovation since last summer and was originally scheduled to be finished by August 2008. Two-thirds of the midshipmen eat there, with one-third of those in the renovated section and the others in the area that has not been renovated. For now, the rest are eating at Dahlgren Hall, which used to house an ice rink.

Occasionally, there haven't been enough seats, so Mids have had to eat outside their squad or company, a no-no under the new policy of stressing small-unit cohesion.

Klein said seating issues have been corrected, and senior food service officials have been at the site since last week, but she wasn't sure when the problem would be fixed.

"We're eight days into mandatory meals, and the end of this week has been smoother than the beginning of the week," she said. "I'll take a wait-and-see approach. I'll wait with corrective action."

Starting this Sunday, the academy will unveil its new menu, a "total overhaul," Klein said. White bread will be replaced with whole wheat, and midshipmen won't have potato chips - which she labeled her "personal enemy" - to cart away anymore. Only fruit.

"Our food service division is trying to support midshipmen in their academic and athletic goals, as well as to educate and expose midshipmen to foods that are part of a well-balanced lifestyle," she said, noting that the academy used nutritionists to design the new menu.

That sounded appropriate for another parent from the West Coast whose daughter is a varsity athlete. The food has been of such poor quality for years that she has sent her care packages to make up the difference.

"They really need a nutritious diet that prepares them for the stresses that are put on their bodies," she said, noting the rigorous physical training Mids complete. "These kids had a lot of choices. If it becomes too spartan and unlike a university in terms of extracurricular activities and good nutrition, they'll go elsewhere."

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