What's cooking? Flight Kitchen serves up food with special touches

  • Published
  • By Jenny Gordon
  • Robins Public Affairs
Visit the Flight Kitchen located at Team JSTARS, and you might receive an unexpected hug. If you’re extra sweet, you may even get a special red smiley face stamp on your hand. All free of charge.


That’s because the folks who work in this business don’t do it because it passes the time. They do it because they’ve learned that a nutritious and satisfying box lunch – prepared from the heart – can make all the difference in the world to the men and women who selflessly serve and protect our country.


If you’ve been around for the last 20-plus years, you’re sure to recognize a familiar face.


Minnie (Paula) McCollum, Flight Kitchen supervisor, may not remember each and every person’s name she’s met over the years, but she does remember faces. Each one matters, so she tries to shine a light on them to make their day a little brighter than before.


It’s about more than just food here,” she said. “It’s about family, the people the staff have come to know over the years. When there’s food involved, it’s always prepared with something extra.


 “We put a little bit of our love and care into each box,” said McCollum, known to everyone as ‘Ms. Paula.’ “I like to see people smile and to give hugs. Maybe somewhere along the line, someone might’ve been sad, and we made them smile for a minute.”


With her voice cracking and eyes brimming with tears, Ms. Paula admits she gets emotional because her work is done with pride.


“The military is the reason why we have jobs and why we’re protected every day,” she said.


Inside this particular kitchen, things run a bit differently than other full-service restaurants and snack bars on base.


At least two people are always on staff, 24 hours a day, throughout the year. The kitchen has been in its current location since 1997, serving thousands of clients since.


“I’ve been here for almost 20 years right here in this spot, and I’ve met some wonderful people. Each time they take a little piece of us with them,” she said.


Here for example anytime a JSTARS crew gets ready to fly a sortie for a short time or deploy, a special box lunch is prepared in advance for their trip. That’s at a cost of $4.20 per meal. And when transient aircraft make a stop on the flight line, its crews are also welcome to stop in to grab a box.


If you weren’t already aware, all military members on the installation can also go through the side door to the kitchen, poke their head through a window and select one of several meals. Special groups on tour, such as visiting ROTC units or Boy Scout troops, can also get an experience of a meal, as well as mission-essential civilians such as firemen and civilian police who are on duty day or night.


If you’re in uniform and walk up for a box lunch, for $5.55, you have several options throughout the week. They also mix it up with specials on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with a choice of a turkey and ham wrap, grilled chicken wrap or chicken tenders.


The daily menu includes a choice of a ham and turkey sub, tuna salad sandwich, turkey and cheese sub, ham and cheese sub, skinless chicken breast sandwich, peanut butter sandwich, chef salad or breaded chicken burger.


Once an entrée has been selected, you next have a pre-made choice of six supplements, or add-ons. Water, soda or juice is included, then you have a choice of cookies, chips and a multigrain bar, or perhaps a fruit cup, cookies, muffin, celery and carrots, applesauce, fruit, pasta or potato salad.


Make no mistake, the ladies in the kitchen pack the food in tight from top to bottom. Especially if there’s a large salad included. With salad dressing and toppings, utensils and condiments, a tightly-squeezed lid is a must. 


Several freezers line the walls. One area includes pre-packaged boxes with supplements. Once you decide what entrée you’d like, a separate freezer houses individually-wrapped items, such as cheese, ham, turkey, chicken, tuna, lettuce and tomatoes, and bread. These are placed into a box and you assemble a sandwich yourself so it stays fresh.


Michael Fearing, an Army veteran who now trains Army officers who fly with JSTARS, regularly chows down on sandwiches and salads from the kitchen. It’s convenient, he says, and allows him to take his meal back to work and grab at items throughout a busy day. Plus service is always quick and friendly.


“I come here just about every day. It’s one of the best deals on base,” said Fearing, a training instructor with the 330th Combat Training Squadron. 


Ms. Paula, always with a smile and encouraging word, leaves one final message.


“I don’t think you’ll find a better box lunch in the world because of the way we care about them,” she said. “Our aim is to please.”