Foodservice at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station was enhanced with updated equipment that saves time, labor and costs while providing expanded menu options.
Running low on fries or cheese is not a big ordeal for most foodservice operations, but McMurdo Station is far from ordinary. In fact, McMurdo Station is far from most things. McMurdo Station in Antarctica sits 2,415 miles south of Christchurch, New Zealand. In other words, McMurdo Station is one of the most remote places on earth.
Built by the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, McMurdo is one of three U.S. Antarctic Program stations managed by the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency covering research in all fields of science and engineering. Established in 1959, the NSF's United States Antarctic Program (USAP) manages all U.S. scientific research and related logistics in Antarctica and ships in the Southern Ocean.
McMurdo Station's lone foodservice operation not only feeds between 800 and 1,100 USAP scientists and support workers daily, but its 30 cooks also serve another important role: "We are the morale community, because there is nowhere else for people to eat," says Todd Eanes, culinary manager for the McMurdo, South Pole and Palmer stations. Eanes is an Antarctica resident for about six months out of the year. "These foodservice operations support approximately 50 outcamps and all field support in the region."
McMurdo's foodservice program faced some key challenges, namely its limited seating, set mealtimes and batch cooking for its buffets were not conducive to efficiently feeding the station's large number of workers. By updating its equipment package, McMurdo was able to switch from buffet service to small-batch cooking. This has resulted in increased menu variety and significant waste reduction. "In the last two years, we've made many strides with the menu and incorporating healthier fare," Eanes says. Now, in addition to 4 meals daily, the dining hall offers 24-hour meal service that includes pizza, sandwiches and grab-and-go selections.
Because food deliveries arrive only once a year, 98 percent of McMurdo's food is frozen. Although, the station occasionally receives supplemental fresh food during the summer when aircraft arrive from New Zealand, there is no fresh milk or dairy, and yogurt is made from scratch.
"It's a tough situation due to the logistics," Eanes says. "Our closest grocery store is 2,800 miles away, and the South Pole is another 800 miles." Yearly food drops make the ordering process both lengthy and challenging. It typically takes many months to create fresh and appealing menus with the limited ingredients available.
Dining hall space also is at a premium. Although the kitchen, servery and dining hall total 8,000 square feet, the space features seating for roughly 230 workers. A runway galley about 14 miles from the station provides short order items in a 3,000-square-foot kitchen, but has only 50 seats.
The main facility's addition of grab-and-go coolers, which contain sandwiches, cold pizza, cookies and other items, provides additional meal flexibility. "We've found that the dining room is rarely fully occupied during meal periods, since we've provided workers with this option," Eanes says.
McMurdo's menu operates on a 35-day cycle, with a goal of not serving the same dish twice in the same month.
This can be a challenge, however, since minimizing food waste remains a focal point for the operation. "We're still working with R&D to refine our menu," Eanes says. "We've brought in food that works better with our equipment. I can now buy five-ounce single lobe IQF chicken breasts, so I can count them exactly to the number I need. Purchasing the right types of food for this operation is a huge deal for us."
With no cash registers, monitoring backfill rates represents the only way to gauge food volume. Culinary staff submit ingredient orders on Mondays, the supply staff packs food on Wednesdays and the kitchen takes delivery of it on Thursdays. Orders can include as much as 20 tons of food at one time.
Working directly with food manufacturers has paid off. In the past, McMurdo utilized a name brand coffee, which cost $14 a pound and came in oversized boxes. Now the station works with a local roaster to blend, roast, tag and package a signature product, which it purchases six months in advance of delivery. This has not only saved $40,000 on coffee costs, but also reduced the amount of packaging used for this product.
Waste is a big factor, as the station operates on a tight budget and the same vessel that delivers food and cargo each year must haul away all trash McMurdo generates. "Being good stewards of the money we receive from NSF means we need to be good stewards of the food," Eanes says. "We have to spend more time on what we're buying and serving, as well as how much trash it produces."
Food storage occurs in three climates, including a freezer warehouse that is half the size of a football field, an unheated warehouse and a "do not freeze" warehouse for items that will freeze and burst. This area resides within 100 yards of the kitchen. "We can get ingredient replenishment on a weekly basis from this site," Eanes says. "Our kitchen includes walk-ins and a thaw box where food is staged."