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Two Fort Benning dining halls closed to save money

Two dining halls have been shut down at Fort Benning and more cuts are planned as the Army trims its budget for dining facilities, an official said.

“This is making the best use of taxpayers’ money,” Deputy Garrison Commander George Steuber said Thursday. “That is exactly what we are going to do.”

At a savings of $1.4 million each, the facility serving the 11th Engineer Battalion was closed and soldiers were moved to the 75th Ranger Regiment for dining. The Officer Candidate School was closed and soldiers were sent to the Airborne School facility to get their chow.

The closures leave the post with 17 dining facilities after a report from the Installation Management Command noted that five did not meet the 65 percent use standard.

“We are shooting for that 65 percent use rate,” Steuber said. “That is based on capacity of the dining facility. When you go to the bigger dining facility, it’s that much harder to keep up with that level.”

The most recent cuts didn’t include the dining facility at Harmony Church which was planned after the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process to move the U.S. Armor School from Fort Knox, Ky. The Harmony Church facility was closed last year, soon after the Armor School completed its move to the post.

Since that time, Steuber said the U.S. military has left Iraq and the Army is projected to get smaller by 80,000 soldiers. “Before, we were building the Army up to numbers we needed to do operational deployments,” he said. “That’s is going to have an effect on dining facilities because we are not going to be training as much.”

The 1,300 capacity dining facility now used as a chapel will not go to waste. “In that one, we had so much excess capacity,” Steuber said. “We had to say early on if we were filled to the brim with soldiers and permanent parties, can we still close this and make the mission? The answer was yes we can.”

With the post preparing for a summer surge of high school and college students, Steuber said more budget cuts will come after their training.

“We pile them in in the summer time and then the time period from the first of the calendar year until schools graduate again, you just don’t get that many people,” he said.

After the summer, officials will take another look at the dining facilities and projections based on training, Steuber said. “I can virtually guarantee you we will be closing down some additional dining facilities. But when we do, we will get with the people involved.”

Cuts already have impacted staffing. Except for the Ranger Regiment and the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, staffing for the dining facilities are contract employees, including cooks and kitchen personnel. Servers were contractors until April 1, when soldiers were incorporated into that role.  

Merchant Stanley, the manager of a new dining facility on Main Post, is well aware of the 65-percent use rate. “I know all about the numbers,” he said Friday after serving 550 soldiers for breakfast.

To keep the use rate up, it takes much coordination with units to know when soldiers are in the field eating MREs (meals ready-to-eat) or using the dining facility, said Stanley who is employed by L&S Services.

The facility he manages can feed up to 1,300 soldiers with a staff of about 32 employees working two shifts. He serves soldiers with the Noncommissioned Officer Academy, Basic Officer Leaders Course and students from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

On an average day, Stanley said he feeds 1,200 to 1,500. After retiring from the Army as sergeant first class, Stanley said serving soldiers comes naturally.

“I think we serve the best food on Fort Benning,” he said.