Operation Allies Refuge Food Service
A smorgasbord of food items are made available to Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants in a cafeteria area adjacent to the Army lodging facility at Fort Lee, Virginia, Aug, 6, 2021. The applicants are staying at Fort Lee temporarily to complete the final stages of their visa application process as part of Operation Allies Refuge, led by the Department of State. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Cody Nelson) (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Cody Nelson) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. – Chief Warrant Officer 3 Zachary T. Brubaker from the Joint Culinary Center of Excellence here eagerly seized the opportunity to make a big impact when he took charge of food service support for Operation Allies Refuge.

There was no precedent for the mission; many of the ingredients needed were not available in the Army supply chain; and he only had days to pull it all together.

Task Force-Eagle, a joint task force comprised of service members, government civilians, and contractors from across the Department of Defense, is providing interagency support to the Department of State-led Operation Allies Refuge – the effort to relocate qualified Afghan nationals eligible for Special Immigrant Visas. U.S. Northern Command has oversight of the DoD’s mission. U.S. Army North, as the Joint Forces Land Component Command, is the operational-level command charged with execution.

Fort Lee met State and DoD criteria for the mission – a secure location with capacity to provide the needed support. The installation and Task Force-Eagle are providing temporary housing, medical screening, transportation and general administrative support for the Afghan special immigrant applicants.

“We were given just over a week to pull the food service piece of this together,” said Brubaker. “The team also had to ensure that all of the food provided met halal standards.”

Halal is Arabic for permissible, meaning it adheres to Islamic law as defined in the Koran. There are several rules for food preparation, and the food service team worked diligently to ensure they met the cultural standards.

“We had to ensure our suppliers had the appropriate food products available in sufficient quantities to supply the Afghans with three hot meals a day for the duration of their stay,” Brubaker said.

The JCCoE, Defense Logistics Agency-Troop Support, Fort Lee Logistics Readiness Center and contract personnel joined together to tackle this complex mission on July 26, expecting the first ASI applicants to arrive four days later.

To best tailor the menu, the food service team applied the structure of DoD menu standards, developing a planned list of ingredients and preparation steps derived from extensive research and consultation with subject matter experts familiar with Afghan culture.

How to serve the food also was a consideration. The team created a robust “grab-and-go” facility that ensured appropriate social distancing could be followed, and they keep the cafeterias open for 12 hours each day, with four-hour blocks for each meal service.

“One of our ‘grab and go’ stations operates around the clock and has plenty of small snacks and beverages that the Afghan special immigrant applicants can grab anytime, day or night,” Brubaker pointed out. “This also allows them to get something to eat as soon as they arrive at Fort Lee. Some of them are arriving pretty early in the morning.”

The team also developed a way for the Afghan special immigrant applicants to provide feedback about the food, cognizant of cross-cultural and communication sensitivities.

Brubaker happily reported, “We’ve gotten roughly 100 cards back and probably 95 percent of them are positive.”

Three translated comments he shared read, “Everything is perfect, thanks for your great hospitality; Good experience from your service, thank you very much; and Great! We loved the potatoes, Afghan omelet, dinner options and personal touches on the tables, thank you!”

The staff also has interpreters on hand during each meal service so they are able to ensure everyone can provide feedback despite the language challenges. Brubaker said they have already made changes dynamically, including adding spice to the meats.

“We just want to make sure the Afghan special immigrant applicants leave each meal with a smile on their face and have time to enjoy what we prepared for them,” Brubaker said. “When they get here, they might be scared, stressed or worried. We want them to leave here and feel comfortable. That’s what we’re here for.”