Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Fresh Food Underway

As a special treat, here's a rough draft of an article a submariner working in a Pentagon mess wrote up to submit to Undersea Warfare magazine; he's looking for comments from the readers here. Click on the "Read More" link to read the article, and use the comments for your feedback.

Fresh Food Underway

A look into the benefits of hydroponic plant systems

By CS2(SS) Timothy Poole, USN

The delicious aroma of slow cooking marina sauce with fresh basil; the sizzling sound of piping hot meatballs mixed with oregano, thyme, or parsley; and the thought of a large batch of spaghetti boiling over is enough to make any homesick sailor come running to the mess decks to grab a bench. The Silent Service is world famous for the quality of food they provide to their submariners. Or rather the dollar amount allotted to each boat's supply department.

Meals are crucial to a crew's morale. It is up to the boat's Culinary Specalists to plan and execute nutritious and tasty meals four times a day for as long as six months at a time. The use of fresh food is very limited, usually only lasting the first two weeks underway. In the weeks and months following deployment, the crew finds nutrition in frozen meats and vegetables. Though the chefs work hard to create delicious dishes, the added touch of freshness is obsolete living deep underwater.

For many years, the absence of sunlight has equaled the absence of fresh foods. However, the use of hydroponics can make the growth of fresh foods possible in a submarine. Hydroponics from the Greek language literally meaning "water labor" is the growth of plants without soil. In combination with artificial lighting, hydroponics creates controlled environmental agriculture.

How hydroponics works

Natural plant growth involves trapping sunlight with the use of water and carbon dioxide. The trapped sunlight is then converted into chemical energy, creating food for the plant and releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Plants are traditionally grown in soil to provide a medium to collect water, provide minerals, and support the plant's root structure. By modifying the growth process and reducing or eliminating the size of plant beds, smaller plants can be grown on submarines. For the purpose of this research, the focus will be to grow and sustain an herb garden on a submarine for use in meals.

Hydroponic devices allow plants roots to be watered with a nutrient solution replacing minerals that can be found in soil. This technology further eliminates the need for soil by providing man made support for root structures. The plant can then be enclosed to maintain temperature, and placed under direct artificial light to induce growth. All factors of growth - temperature, light, water, nutrients, and pH balance can be controlled for maximum results.

The benefits of artificial growth

Plant growth in non-agricultural locations
Many groups have seen the benefits of hydroponic plant growth. The hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World is considered an early day example of hydroponics. Built to please his wife, Nebuchadnezzar II brought lush gardens to present day Iraq in 600 B.C. Other examples in history include the floating gardens of the Aztecs in Mexico as well as those in China. Aside from aesthetic purposes, hydroponics is widely used for practical purposes. Farmers use hydroponics to provide vegetation year round regardless of the climate as well as large scale production. Hydroponics can improver farmer profits and provide for an increasing demanding society leaning toward healthier trends. Looking toward the future, NASA has been developing hydroponic plant growth to sustain long missions in space. Further, as we continue to explore life on other planets, hydroponics can help future missions to support humans on other planets.

Ease of use
The initial development of hydroponic devices custom built for attack submarines (SSN or fast attacks) or fleet ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) will take some time to develop given restriction on available space. However, once the system is established, only basic agricultural skills are needed to maintain plant life. If implemented, the Navy will undoubtedly produce a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on how much water and light is needed to maximize growth. Care will have to be given to monitor the pH balance and adjust the climate in order to stimulate or reduce growth as necessary. In addition, without soil there is no threat to a plant's life by way of soil borne disease or weeds.

A hydroponic system is more efficient than natural plant growth in a variety of ways. First, the use of water is reduced due to the fact that water is being given directly to a plant's root. The root does not have to seek water from soil. Think of pouring a watering can over a plant bed as opposed to sitting a plant in a controlled amount of water. Second, hydroponic gardeners have found that their plants grow much faster as opposed to growth through traditional soil. Perhaps this is because the root is directly exposed to water and nutrients without having to seek such ingredients from the soil. Finally, the system is efficient because takes much less physical labor has opposed to traditional planting or gardening. On a small scale, the time and effort to grow herbs is quite minimal.

A hydroponic system is in complete control of the planter. All aspects of plant life can be modified through temperature, direct or indirect light, quantity of water, and the amount of nutrients to which a plant is exposed. Gardeners can experiment in this controlled environment, changing the elements listed above to find which combinations maximize or diminish growth.

Nutrition and well-being
As plants consume carbon dioxide, they produce oxygen. In an environment such as a submarine, a plant would be the only living entity contributing to the oxygen supply as opposed to consuming the supply. In addition, plants provide a profound amount of nutrition necessary to a human diet to sustain life. Herbs in particular can provide the following:

Aloe Vera- sooths skin and digestive disorders

Echinacea- found to possess antibacterial and immune-boosting properties, helps to fight coughs, colds, viral, and upper respiratory infections

Garlic- reduces blood pressure, preventing heart disease, and preventing and reversing a stroke. It also fights infections and cancer.

Oregano- rich in antioxidant content

Rosemary- helps prevent and treat cancer, also a powerful brain booster to aid memory problems.

Saint Johns Wort- holds powerful anti-depression properties

From the nutritional benefits listed above, it is easy to see how introducing fresh herbs to a group of submariners on an extended duty tour could help raise moral. Fresh food stimulates the body to perform and work to the best of its ability. In addition, the herbs mentally prepare sailors for the difficult duties they will have to endure. Taking care of the plants and maintaining the hydroponic systems can also increase sailor morale. Cultivating and maintaining a life form can bring pleasure and a sense of pride to caretaking duties, much as gardeners or farmers simply find pure joy in working with plants.


There is still much to be considered before implementing a hydroponic system on a submarine. The first consideration is availability of space. As many know, every available inch of a submarine is utilized. The best solution would be to first implement a small system on an SSBN on a trial basis. It would have to be determined if the effort to develop a hydroponic system (time, money, and use of space) is worth the output of the system (morale, nutrition, substantial plant growth). In addition, is the input to create such a system worth the effort when submariners are currently getting by on an already fantastic feast provided by their chefs? Another consideration is the use of dried herbs in preparing meals. Is this solution enough to provide benefits to sailors?

A future for growth undersea

It is important to remember that our technology and our military are ever evolving. Hydroponics can allow flexible placement of plant life in a submarine setting to provide nutritional and morale benefits to our sailors. Roasted rosemary potatoes, garlic-herb chicken, herb encrusted tenderloin, and many more recipes are what could be enjoyed by submariners with the help of hydroponic plant systems. Look, I am not suggesting that we line the out-boards with tomato vines or grow fresh mint from a hanging basket back in manuerving(though it will make it smell better after taco night!) From the research that I have conducted all i need is a 3x3x3 space and I will be able to grow enough fresh herbs to make the crew crave their next meal. They could take part in the growth process, and take pride in their role to provide for the entire crew. Finally, they could be rewarded for the duty to their country which takes a tremendous amount of mental discipline. There is a movement in our society toward health and long life. Of the strongest, must be our military, which represent the United States to the world. Hydroponic systems in submarines could be the tool to keep our sailors healthy and strong in all environments they explore and defend. Adding fresh herbs to meals now could develop into the availability of fresh vegetables throughout extended tours in the future. Healthy minds and bodies are the best tools to safely complete a mission and serve the country.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sliders and angle cake would have nothing on hydroponics especially during angles and dangles.

12/28/2007 8:07 AM

Blogger SonarMan said...

Since these plants will be the only things living on the boat that do not consume oxygen, and produce food and removes carbon dioxide, does that mean they are automatically qualified?

12/28/2007 8:23 AM

Blogger Vigilis said...

"The first consideration is availability of space. As many know, every available inch of a submarine is utilized. The best solution would be to first implement a small system on an SSBN on a trial basis."

What next, female submariners?

"Looking toward the future, NASA has been developing hydroponic plant growth to sustain long missions in space."

No need to experiment on military submarines, however. Submerged, undersea test laboratories offer superior venues.

12/28/2007 9:17 AM

Blogger cheezstake said...

The Navy has performed test runs with females. A Congresswoman from Illinois was once behind a big push to get women on subs... until she rode on an SSN. She then toned down her push.

We had a goldfish in the galley for 3 weeks. The cook forgot to bring O2 tablets and it subsequently died from the excellent O2 level on the boat.

12/28/2007 9:34 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

opOne problem is making sure the fresh herbs are the right herbs. Back in the 70's I suspect a few special seeds would find their way into a back corner.

Unless things have changed since my days of service, I can see this being taken over by certain parties. The captain wants fresh lettuce out go the fresh herbs in goes the lettuce.

12/28/2007 9:35 AM

Anonymous quotecritter said...

Please we are talking herbs and seasonings here.

Most people on dry land don't grow their own and it all comes off the spice shelf.

To make any sense at all you would have to move to something like potatoes or carrots or veggies which would take a bunch of space.

I know people who go through almost their entire lives and the only time the hit up against fresh herbs may be in a high end food place.

12/28/2007 9:42 AM

Blogger CEP said...

Somehow I imagine the hydroponic growth of fresh garlic would not improve the smell onboard after taco night, whatever long-term health benefits it might impart.

12/28/2007 10:06 AM

Anonymous ex-ET nuke said...

As mentioned by the first Mr. Anon, angles and dangles would cause some interesting issues, but what about some of the other atmosphere contaminants out there? I seem to remember the ever present oil slick on my cup of coffee, the always noticeable whiff of amine, and several other things that always caused the air to have the "submarine funk".

I think it could be a good idea over-all, but as Vigilis mentioned, it should be piloted somewhere else first to get the bugs out and make it "sailor proof" first.

12/28/2007 10:30 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

....other obstacles to overcome to meet the "controlled environment" qualification:

Temperature fluctuations. Once the A/C dies, temperature goes up quick. A requirment to emergency ventilate to bring temperatures down wouldn't do much for plants. Just going in and out of the gulf stream has an effect...

Pressure fluctuations. Don't know if it matters to plants, but taking a gulp then squeezing the excess into the air banks results in some pretty regular and significant pressure changes.

Others have already mentioned airborne chemicals, would that be absorbed by the plant, resulting in a change of taste? Absorved by the water, leading to plant absorbtion, leading to personnel hazard?

You want to improve morale, buid a still!

12/28/2007 12:08 PM

Blogger wtfdnucsailor said...

I attempted a hydroponics garden some fifty years ago as a high school science project. I am sure the technology as much improved since then but I seem to remember the care and feeding as very labor intensive. Even then, I did something wrong and all the plants died just before the project was due. I got an 'A' for effort but not much else. I also think that angles and dangles and scram drills would be the death of the plants even if you could find a spot for them and someone to care for them as a collaterial duty. Certainly an interesting concept.

12/28/2007 12:56 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea."

HG Wells, British novelist, in 1901.

12/28/2007 1:54 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The trick now, and probably always has been, is to mask the taste of the prepared food.

Therefore, my question is:

Are fresh herbs and seasonings better than lots of ketchup and hot sauce??

Jim C.

12/28/2007 5:04 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fresh herbs just wouldn't do it for me unless you had it with some Free-missle-compartment-range chicken. It would be no problem slaughtering the fowl. Most boomer sailors have plenty of experience choking a chicken. Sorry, couldn't help myself. ex-MissSh*tcan A-ganger

12/28/2007 6:32 PM

Anonymous CS2(SS) Timothy Poole said...

First off I would like to thank Mr. Joel Kennedy for posting my article. I have asked some of the brass that I know at the Pentagon if they knew him of him and his blog. Well it turns out that one of them did and said that he actually met him once. I would also like to thank all of you bubbleheads out there for responding to my article. Your comments and critiques are welcome. I will also attempt to answer some of your questions.

1. Since these plants will be the only things living on the boat that do not consume oxygen, and produce food and removes carbon dioxide, does that mean they are automatically qualified?
Ummm…not sure about this question. I guess we will just have to do a taste test at their board.

2. What next, female submariners?

I was in the Navy for 1 year before I even realized that they let women in the Navy. That is no joke; I was in Kings Bay doing gate guard duty and saw a female chief for the first time. I almost asked for ID…
So No: I do not advocate the use of females onboard subs.

3. Somehow I imagine the hydroponic growth of fresh garlic would not improve the smell onboard after taco night, whatever long-term health benefits it might impart.

Do you ever watch Rachel Ray on the food network? Besides being freaking hot she always uses fresh garlic in her recipes. She could bust ass around me anytime!

4. As mentioned by the first Mr. Anon, angles and dangles would cause some interesting issues, but what about some of the other atmosphere contaminants out there?


Others have already mentioned airborne chemicals; would that be absorbed by the plant, resulting in a change of taste? Absorved by the water, leading to plant absorbtion, leading to personnel hazard?

The Hydro system that I am designing would use a closed loop to deliver water to the root system of the herbs. So I don’t think that angles and dangles would be a factor. However, that is a good question.

As far as chemicals being absorbed into the herbs and causing a change of taste. Well, that is something that is yet to be seen. Whatever the taste I can guarantee you that they will still taste better than dried herbs.
The way I see it, our bodies are already absorbing what ever chemicals that are in the boats atmosphere already. Who knows what type of lung crap we could get as a result of breathing amine 50 years from now.

5. Are fresh herbs and seasonings better than lots of ketchup and hot sauce?

Trust me, as a chef for the SECNAV and his top 6 executives. Whatever boat gets me in September will completely forget about all of the pre-made sauces that you used to cover up traditional “blow out my ass” boat food . Say good-by to “pillows of death” and dried out roast beef. I mean how many times have you had roast beef and crappy gravy underway?

Thanks for the input men.
CS2(SS) Timothy Poole

12/28/2007 7:01 PM

Anonymous CS2(SS) Timothy Poole said...

Look guys, here is the deal. The Navy has been really good to me. I got the opportunity to serve my country by cooking for my crew underway. Then my division won the Ney Award in 2004. Shortly after that the Navy sent me to a really expensive school called the “Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After that I interviewed for a job at the SECNAV’s Executive Dining Facility at the Pentagon and got hired. I have learned a lot in my 2 ½ years here. I have gone from a “stew burner” as my COB used to call me to a Chef. Every single dish that I prepare for the SECNAV and his guests, I take the time to figure out how to prepare it utilizing what kitchen equipment we have available on the boat. There is NO such thing as dried herbs in my kitchen. You might as well shred up some cardboard and ask your CS to sprinkle it on your food. There is no taste comparison between the flavor of fresh herbs and dried herbs.
I believe that with my skills in the kitchen combined with the use of fresh herbs such as; parsley, rosemary, thyme and basil will leave my fellow submariners craving their next meal.

12/28/2007 7:31 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Navy paid to send you to CIA? Holy crap, I had no idea they would do that. Dude, you need to forget your next boat and put in for White House Mess.

I bet you make really good sliders. My god, did I say that?

See, you are just wasted on us :)

12/28/2007 8:32 PM

Blogger reddog said...

It's clear from the response that you have touched a special place in the hearts of the submarine community.

I see no reason as to why a small hydroponic operation producing flavorful fresh herbs would not be possible but it seems a gilding of the lily. The food on submarines is already pretty good. Agriculture would seem to be more suited to large surface vessels.

As to women serving on board, only if they were extremely collegial and entirely impartial. I like the idea of sailing with a few civilian "laundresses" aboard, in the employ of the welfare and recreation committee. This is not a new idea but one that has fallen, sadly, into disrepute.

12/28/2007 10:01 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

CS2(SS) Don't let the nay-sayers get you down. As a post-XO, I can tell you the value of a great galley can't be understated. I remember usta-boat had a CS from Baton Rouge, LA ...gumbo, fried catfish, hoppin' john and hot sauce....mmmmm.

I was very impressed w/ your article, keep pressing Shipmate!

Rock Chalk Jayhawk, GO KU!

12/28/2007 10:08 PM

Anonymous quotecritter said...

It don't make a hill of beans what can be done at a SECNAV mess or anywhere.

As long as those meal prep cards exist and only limited approved suppliers give you the raw ingredients to work magic with it would take a command willing to step out of the box to give cookie his permission to move on his own.

You can try to make the finest meat loaf in the world, but if you have to work with stuff I have seen cooks drain off a couple of quarts of grease from while cooking you still can only do so much.

If the CO will go for open purchase stuff to improve it more power to him.

I would much rather have a quality brand pasta sauce than the lowest common denominator that you have to try to doctor up to save.

Don't get me wrong, sub food overall is much better than the rest of the fleet for crew happiness reasons and needs to be.

But for the average skill cook with average quality product you are going to get average results.

12/29/2007 1:41 PM

Blogger M. Simon said...

I remember preferring to walk an extra mile to eat at the sub mess at Mare Island (long ago and far away).

The pastry chef was a wizard, the biscuits melted in your mouth and there were trays and trays and trays. Racks of trays. Greased with all the butter you could stand. Yum.

Every thing else was better too. Yum. Yum.

BTW I was training at Mare Island to be a skimmer. Bad eyes.

12/29/2007 3:57 PM

Anonymous Hampton Plankowner said...

how about spending the money instead on better food instead of chicken stamped rejected by air force on it and jelly that was 10 years old, the cooks hated me all i did was make the electricty and the water and move the ship, all they had to do was cook food and most of them could not done with my little rant

12/29/2007 10:39 PM

Blogger Chap said...

Good on CS2 for thinking and writing about it.

Okay, a couple of observations.

--ISTR the Rooskies doing something like this back in the day. You may want to check with the historians.
--You can grow plants on a boat. You can also screw up and put the bonsai tree in a compartment that would frown on such things, and then have the XO find it because the gro-lamp made the box warm and you left shavings from your cabinet mod. Not that I've seen anything like that.
--Many small vegetables and herbs require relatively little space. (Especially if the cook follows the recipe card and makes it bland as all get out...or uses it as garnish or topping, much like bittering vs/ aroma hops in brewing). Room can be found...but who takes the logs on the shrubbery?
--Pure liquid hydroponics may be less useful than the gel-bead hydroponics they're doing now; fewer worries about angles and dangles if all the water is in a gel-bead "soil". Besides--if an SSN can have a big ol' fishtank in the wardroom then we can figure such things out.
--The food industry's been doing amazing things with gas-filled packaging for greens, and absorbent pads for some of the spoiling gases. You may find that some of that will get you part way through a patrol or even all the way through.
--Important real estate tip: If you see a new house with a great price deal, and there are a lot of electrical outlets in the very large basement, ask how long the owner's going to be in jail for his hydroponic enterpreneurship. Not that I've seen that house hunting...


I've been lucky enough to ride more than one boat with guys who went to WH mess. I've also been in a flag mess on a skimmer that was bad enough to drive you to PowerBars. Good food is a beautiful thing. Now, how to make meals not suck when the boat is in SRA and they close the galley?

12/29/2007 11:37 PM

Blogger Chap said...

Oh yeah. Don't forget submitting to other journals, too, if you're not doing this to fill the UW. The Sub League quarterly likes pieces like this, too.

12/29/2007 11:40 PM

Blogger Deep Six said...

The "Navy Standard Menu" is going to eliminate the opportunity for good people like the CS2 who wrote this excellent article to cook with fresh anything. Basically it is big frozen entrees, like 25 servings of sweedish meatballs that just get warmed up. They are serving it on LINCOLN and NIMITZ right now, and it is headed to the skimmers and subs . . . cheaper and no CSes required.

12/30/2007 12:49 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

monitor ph balance, nutrients, and climate? you cant trust the CRA and ELTs with the reactor, but you can trust them with our food? great.

good work CS2. coming from CIA, you have the credentials to push this- its a very prestigious school.

leave it to a submariner to design closed loop hydroponics systems for herbs. are we nerds or what?

12/30/2007 3:28 AM

Anonymous stsc(ss) said...

We had this discussion when I was on the Kam in the 80's. Great idea!
I hope you do well on your next tour, in my experience great cooks don't last long at sea, they're snapped up at the Commodore's or Admiral's mess.

As deep six pointed out, Navy Standard Menu is coming. And it will be a sad day for the Sub Force.

12/31/2007 2:18 PM

Blogger Chap said...

I just thought this should be pointed out: Kam sailors RULE. Imua!

12/31/2007 11:28 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cost/Benefit analysis tells me its a stupid idea. What problem are they trying to solve? If fresh food is the issue, then there are easier ways to provide it without adding work, technical problems, and pollen to the air.


1/02/2008 7:28 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is "Hot Racking" still empolyed on 688 and 688I boats? If it is, ask any junior enlisted sailor who has to put up with hot racking if additional berthing makes more sense from a space point of view than a hydroponic victory garden.


1/02/2008 11:31 AM


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