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Military cooks say too understaffed to provide decent meals

A military cook prepares meals at an Air Force base in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday. (Ministry of National Defense)
A military cook prepares meals at an Air Force base in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Thursday. (Ministry of National Defense)
GOYANG, Gyeonggi Province -- On the same day South Korea’s military revealed a bigger budget for meals for soldiers, military cooks said they were still too shorthanded to provide a decent meal and need better ingredients.

The military has recently been rocked by social media posts showing the subpar meals given to conscripts under quarantine for the coronavirus. The mounting accusations galvanized the military to revamp the food-rationing system and unveil the latest measure Thursday. The new budget kicks in next month.

“Nobody eats the same amount in one sitting and that’s the challenge,” said Yoo Ji-heon, an Air Force corporal who told reporters visiting the Air Force base in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, that there is not a definitive square meal for every soldier in quarantine.

Quarantined soldiers receive their meals after others, in what have been monthslong precautions to keep the virus from spreading out of control in the military. The isolated soldiers were given insufficient meals -- both in quantity and quality.

Yoo said the food-rationing system needs fundamental change for every conscript who relies on the military for as long as 21 months. Subpar meals have been a fact of life for most conscripts for the past years.

“It all depends on soldier cooks -- us -- who deliver meals, and we need backup. Like someone who can help us with washing dishes,” Yoo said.

There are soldiers in charge of cleanup, but at current staffing levels kitchens can easily be overwhelmed.

The cook, who has been preparing meals for 14 months, was one of four soldiers tasked with feeding 190 soldiers. He is responsible for 50 people per meal; that would be 80 if he were in the Army.

“We work all week. We have this never-ending pain in our back and wrists,” Yoo said, adding securing better ingredients comes second in preparing a reasonable meal for everyone.

He welcomed the military’s decision to raise the meal budget, saying the hike would help his team to take advantage of a wider range of ingredients and put together the “reasonable meal,” like the kinds found outside the base.

Starting from July, the military can spend as much as 10,000 won ($8.90) for three meals a day, up almost 14 percent from the current cap. Still, that will be about 2,000 won less per meal than what Seoul City middle schools get to feed their students.

Aware of budget constraints, the military added it will look at if it can outsource rationing altogether to catering companies, though many military experts have opposed the idea because that would rob the military of the capability to feed its own in the case of an emergency.

Gil Eun-ju, an Air Force master sergeant overseeing the soldier cooks, said more money meant more variety in ingredients.

“Some say increasing the meat intake isn’t always healthy. But we prepare meals keeping that in mind, so that’s under control here,” she said.

Lee Ye-chan, an Air Force corporal, said most soldiers at the base were excited to see the change take effect. Conscripts could be seen as too picky about what they eat, but they go through exhausting drills and craving meat comes naturally, he added.

Lee, who said he did not skip meals even when he found menus less appealing to his appetite than the usual, empathized with cooks for their taxing work, which he described as one of the tough positions to serve in the military.

“We need more of them. Maybe one or two more … the system will inevitably crash if we continue to live on the edge,” he said.

By Choi Si-young and Joint Press Corps (