MADISON, Wis. – Meals at one of the nation's largest military training bases apparently weren't very appetizing a few years ago.
If the food came at all, bugs were sometimes companions, and food workers didn't always 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 in 2005 and 2006. A state official who oversaw the contract acknowledged problems but testified that shoddy Army facilities were largely at fault.
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 food 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 Janet Dickey, a manager hired by the state to work with food service contractor Blackstone Consulting Inc.
Dickey lost her job at the base in 2006 when the Army canceled the contract. An arbitration panel agreed last year that her work wasn't supervised correctly, causing the contract to fail.
Fort McCoy spokeswoman Linda Fournier said it was the poor quality of the food, not the outdated buildings, that caused complaints. 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.
The dispute began in 2003, when the state Department of Workforce Development won the Army contract to serve meals to thousands of soldiers under a law that gives preference to blind vendors. The state hired Blackstone as a subcontractor to run the operation alongside Dickey, who is blind.
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, kitchen workers were forced to open the doors because of the extreme heat but that attracted flies and other bugs.
"As a result, insects, rodents, all kinds of creatures come in through the garrison buildings," workforce development official Joseph D'Costa testified in the arbitration hearing last year. "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 that 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, inadequate supply of food and instances where undercooked chicken was served. He followed up the next month with a letter adding problems such as employees not washing their hands and not 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, leading to longer lines and the use of disposable plates and silverware. Fournier said the carousel 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.
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.