Op-ed: Service and Sacrifice Shouldn’t Include Going Hungry

As a military brat, I learned at a young age the importance of our American values. I committed myself to defending them as an Army Medical Service Corps officer and a paratrooper. Today, as a wife, mom, and community volunteer, I still stand up for our freedoms, and I hope the Biden administration will do the same—by upholding the right of individual service members to make their own food choices. 

Whether for health or conscience, our fellow Americans want more plant-based foods, both in military facilities and in rations, including MREs (meals ready to eat). Rather than honor their values, however, federal food policy all but relegates vegan service members to second-class status. Sgt. Alexander Contreras joined the forces more than 20 years after I did, and as he told one interviewer, the situation hadn’t gotten much better:

“When I did get to the chow hall, they had a salad bar …, but we gotta be realistic. I’m not going to live off of raisins and apples.

“My first field problem was an entire month. … I was like … ‘they’ll bring green beans or whatever.’ … When they didn’t we had to eat MREs,” and “the only thing in there you can eat are crackers.”

How many service members follow a plant-based diet is currently unknown. But many report meeting like-minded soldiers surprisingly often. A recent survey of service members reflects a similar trend, finding that 81% would like more plant-based options, and 61% would choose vegan MREs if offered. Yet to this day, not a single vegan MRE is available. Meanwhile some service members resort to buying their own plant-based food and lugging it in duffel bags—if their commanders allow it. As a veteran, it pains me to know that those who serve and sacrifice are not supported, especially in something as fundamental and important as food.

Plant-based MREs even have proof of concept on their side. Indeed, HDRs (Humanitarian Daily Rations) are a spinoff of MREs and contain no animal products, as they serve large populations with diverse religious and dietary needs. The government’s inaction on food service reform is not one of feasibility. The Biden administration has a great opportunity to support our service members by providing plant-based rations.

Of course, no one makes it through basic training, let alone a combat mission, without stamina and strength, and these can be gained and maintained through wholly plant-based foods. In fact, many elite athletes eat plant-based to enhance their performance. Take Wake Forest alum (Go Deacs!) and NBA point guard Chris Paul, who calls plant-based eating his “cheat code.” 

Ironically, the federal government promotes the benefits of plant-based foods through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The DVA offers materials on plant-based eating, declaring that “vegetables are the healthiest foods on the planet” and “vegetables should be the basis of your diet.” Go for Green®, an initiative of Uniformed Services University, tells service members to “eat well” to “perform well” and urges them to “stay mission-ready” through “plant-forward eating.” 

If you’re like me, you believe every American, regardless of motivation, has the right to live in line with their beliefs, especially in matters as personal as what to eat. This is a value our service members fight for and one we have a duty to uphold for them.

Kristin Burrell is a former Army Medical Service Corps officer/paratrooper and the daughter of a retired Army Medical Corps officer/paratrooper.

Mercy For Animals is a leading international nonprofit working to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system. Active in Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, and the United States, the organization has conducted more than 100 investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, influenced more than 500 corporate policies, and helped pass historic legislation to ban cages for farmed animals. Join us at MercyForAnimals.org.