Some might expect that Navy personnel need large amounts of meat in their diet. Though there is substantial food science research backing the health benefits of plant-based diets, how will the Navy react when it’s forced upon them? 

According to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, written by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, the Navy would “establish and carry out a pilot program to offer plant-based protein options at forward operating basses for consumption by members of the Navy.” 

The Navy Secretary is requested to provide at least two forward Navy installations to test the pilot. One of the reasons this bill is raised is to ensure Navy members can still get “meat” “where livestock-based protein options may be costly to obtain or store.” 

The amendment gave examples of bases like the Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the US Fleet Activities Sasebo in Japan, and the Join Region Marianas in Guam. 

The pilot program is set to continue for three years, and the Navy Secretary will submit a comprehensive report to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees with final findings that should include: 

  • The consumption rate of plant-based protein options by sailors at bases in the pilot program
  • Effective criteria to increase vegan meat offerings at other Navy bases
  • And a comparative analysis of the costs to buy, store and serve the plant-based protein versus those for regular meat.

Though the amendment’s core is to introduce healthy but equally tasty sources of protein, the bill notes they will still be supplying “livestock-based protein” during the program. 

U.S. Navy Culinary Specialist 1st Class Matthew Lako, from Cleavland, Ohio, prepares chicken for dinner aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), Aug. 7, 2017, in the Arabian Gulf. Nimitz is deployed in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (Source: DIVIDS)
U.S. Navy Culinary Specialist 1st Class Matthew Lako, from Cleavland, Ohio, prepares chicken for dinner aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), Aug. 7, 2017, in the Arabian Gulf. Nimitz is deployed in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. (Source: DIVIDS)

Aside from the health benefits of vegan meat, the bill notes that it accounts for more sustainable financial resource planning for the Navy. For example, in Guam, a pound of chicken costs $9. Eggs cost more than $5 per dozen. Additionally, the Navy is stationed in regions experiencing high levels of inflation (as steep as 15%). This means it will be expensive for the Navy or its branches to keep the kitchens fully stocked with beef, pork, or chicken. 

Guam is one of the Navy locations where groceries and basic food supplies are generally imported. This means the costs of perishables are extremely high compared to their counterparts. 

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that US inflation reached a 40-year peak. Energy prices are also rising because of the after-effects of the Ukraine-Russia war. Costs for local and imported meat have also increased with other food staples. 

Gaining Traction in the Military

Sailors Volunteer at Local Food Pantry for Navy Week Richmond (Source: DIVIDS/ PO1 Taylor Jackson)
Sailors Volunteer at Local Food Pantry for Navy Week Richmond (Source: DIVIDS/ PO1 Taylor Jackson)

Many military branches have also raised concerns about the availability of vegan food on bases. According to a specialist in the US army who went vegan in 2018, it was extremely challenging for him to perform at high levels while not having access to the type of food his body needed. 

“I’m living in a world of violence by being in the military but trying to live the most peaceful lifestyle that I can. Choosing not to be violent in my everyday life when I don’t have to be is something I wholeheartedly say falls in line with my religious beliefs and military values.”

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Military bases usually have kosher, halal, and vegetarian meals, but vegan foods are still hard to come back. Most vegan soldiers would depend on snacks like bread, peanut butter, and canned vegetables to survive. 

“It was just a miserable time,” he says. “We were in the field and had one meal a day. I went four days straight eating exclusively green beans.” He was fatigued, an obvious problem for soldiers in combat. “You want soldiers to be at their most capable and their most mentally and physically prepared for any action,” he says.

Though there is a lot of hesitation around the vegan diet in the military, many welcome the idea and are looking for available options.

Chief Petty Officer Thomas Searin, a US Coast Guard mechanic in Miami, says he was hesitant to explore veganism at first because he’s seen it as a type of character jab. In addition, meat is equated to masculinity, so accepting a vegan diet dispels many of these norms. 

It was only when he met Master Chief Petty Officer Eric Gibson, vegan for more than five years, that he changed his mind. After that, he was able to adapt to the diet, but he acknowledges that his rank played a part in the transition. For him, tastier vegan options are more available, but for lower-ranking soldiers, canned vegetables could be the best they could hope for. 

It was reported that the military already has their pre-packed vegan meals, but they’re not available for soldiers yet. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) notes that these are usually distributed to humanitarian causes and civilians. 

“…these meals contain no animal products or by-products, except that minimal amounts of dairy products are permitted.” 

Aside from those already looking for vegan meals, how will the rest of the Navy or the military adjust if this is implemented on all bases?