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Military cooks ‘overworked’ amid quarantine meals furor

A Facebook photo posted by a soldier serving in the Army sparked a wave of criticism over “poorly prepared” meals in the military. (Yonhap)
A Facebook photo posted by a soldier serving in the Army sparked a wave of criticism over “poorly prepared” meals in the military. (Yonhap)
As the military scrambles to improve meals amid continued reports of underfed conscripts in quarantine, overworked military cooks may be overlooked.

Army cooks work nonstop from 5 a.m. through 8 p.m., according to an account from a person who claims her son is an Army cook at a base near Seoul. The day-to-day tasks include offloading food from trucks, managing ingredients, cleaning up after meals and taking photos of the meals given to soldiers under quarantine.

“Army cooks are burnt out. Hellish life continues,“ the mother said in an email to Yonhap News.

“Whereas soldiers in general rest in the weekend and after training, military cooks can’t even dream of rest days, and this has gotten worse with COVID-19.”

At companies or smaller army units, two cooks are needed for every 150 soldiers, according to military officials.

This compares to four cooks per 150 conscripts in the Navy and the Air Force.

A soldier without any professional cooking experience is responsible for the meals of 75 soldiers three times a day -- often without rest days.

There are no nutritionists or dietitians.

In addition to such chronic problems in the military system, the prolonged pandemic has worsened working conditions for military cooks as an increasing number of soldiers are in quarantine.

In early March, a month before the first report of insufficient meals for conscripts surfaced, an online petition on the presidential website called for a single rest day for military cooks.

The petitioner wrote at the time that military cooks were given a few days off every three months, and were excluded from training or guard duty prior to the pandemic.

“But come COVID-19, most military cooks haven’t had a rest day for months due to shortage of personnel … The biggest problem is the small number of cooks,” the petitioner wrote.

The petition received approval from only about 1,800 people at the time.

Battered over photos of nearly empty food trays and “poor meals,” Defense Minister Suh Wook convened a meeting of commanders on May 20, and decided routine checks were needed on military cooks’ living conditions and to take necessary measures.

The ministry also said it will take steps to hire civilian cooks, but budget matters have yet to be settled.

Some in the military say the cafeterias for commissioned officers and conscripts should be run together, or more fundamentally, the meal service should be outsourced to professional meal providers.

By Kim So-hyun (