Michigan lawmakers give food to National Guard troops at Capitol

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Members of the Michigan congressional delegation handed out food and gift cards Wednesday to Michigan National Guard troops who have assisted with security at the U.S. Capitol since the inauguration in January.

The gesture was meant as a thank you to the service members following complaints that the troops were served undercooked and poor quality food by a military contractor. The National Guard has said it is sticking with the vendor despite the problems.

"We prefer that they didn't have to be here, but they were here. They did their job. They helped our Capitol Police," said U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton. 

"They had a bad experience with food here for a while. I think we got it straightened around. But in the end, it's just one of those things that Michiganders say: 'Glad you're here.'" 

Republican U.S. Reps. Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township, at left, and Bill Huizenga of Holland chat with members of the Michigan National Guard during a food drop across from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Just under 1,000 Michigan troops are among 5,100 guard members now helping with the Capitol security mission — the largest contingent behind the District of Columbia National Guard. The mission began after the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Following the food debacle, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said last week she would not extend the Michigan guard's deployment in Washington beyond its Friday end date, despite a plan approved by the Pentagon late Tuesday for the guard to stay at the Capitol another couple of months. 

The lawmakers on Wednesday gathered at the corner of First and East Capitol streets just across the street from the Capitol building and distributed Chick-fil-A sandwiches and $10 Visa gift cards to Michigan troops who were getting off an overnight shift. 

The soldiers reported hometowns from around the state — Detroit to Brighton to Muskegon to Sault Ste. Marie.

Other members of the Michigan delegation replicated the food drop at lunch,where Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat and mother of two, distributed a personal letter to each soldier, thanking them for their protection and "helping me get home to my babies." 

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, hands a letter to members of the Michigan National Guard during a lunch break on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Both the food and the gift cards were covered by the State Society of Michigan, a nonprofit organization that promotes the Mitten State in the nation's Capitol, aides said. Several lawmakers said they would donate personal or campaign funds to the State Society to go toward the cost.

"If it buys them a cup of coffee or a Subway sub — great. The main message is just to say thank you," said Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican who helped organize Wednesday's food drop. 

Huizenga led the Michigan delegation last week in calling for the National Guard's contractor, Sardi's Catering of Maryland, to be fired and replaced, or for the troops to receive per diem for the remainder of their mission and retroactively. 

"What's most disheartening is, consistently, at least within each group of folks that I've had a chance to talk to, there's at least one if not all of them say, 'I gave up on the food weeks ago.' They just stopped eating it," Huizenga said. 

Complaints about the food started in mid-February. That's when lawmakers and Whitmer's office say they started raising the problem with guard leadership and the Pentagon. 

At least 50 service members were sickened with gastrointestinal issues since the Capitol security mission began Jan. 6, but guard officials say none of those sickened have been hospitalized due to illness from the food. However, some were treated at hospitals or military health facilities. 

U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga, Tim Walberg and Peter Meijer hand out breakfast sandwiches and gift cards to members of the Michigan National Guard across the street from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Sardi's has defended its food service and claims that none of the cases of reported gastrointestinal illness among soldiers have been linked to the company. 

The National Guard said Monday that the head of the U.S. Army has ordered a preliminary inquiry into "allegations of the inadequate provision of food" for the service members, according to a spokesman for the Joint Task Force at the Capitol.

The National Guard Bureau has said it's continuing with the current food service contract and the vendor — a position the Pentagon reiterated Monday. The guard has maintained that the problem is not systemic and limited to a fraction of more than 1.2 million meals served since Jan. 6.

Sen. Gary Peters, the Democratic head of the Senate Homeland Security panel, said he's heard from guardsmen in recent days that the food quality is still "hit or miss." 

He said he's gotten conflicting messages from guard leadership on the matter, with some claiming that only Michigan service members were complaining. 

"But I had guardsmen and women from Pennsylvania come to my office and thank me for working on it because they're saying they're having the same issue," Peters said. "So it's not just Michigan. It's the other states that are here, as well."

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, hands a gift card to a member of the Michigan National Guard across the street from the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, expressed frustration not only with the National Guard Bureau's "mismanagement" of the food contract but its inability to provide a "square answer — in addition to a square meal."

He said the guard shouldn't be using the caterer now and definitely shouldn't award the vendor another contract to feed the troops who will remain at the Capitol beyond March 12.

"It's just baffling that they can't get that right and really leads me to question a lot of things," said Meijer, a former U.S. Army sergeant who served in Iraq.

"But today is about saying thank you to the soldiers out here. If the National Guard Bureau won't provide them with the per diem, at least their members of Congress are able to try to chip in a little bit and get them some fresh, hot and tasty Chick-fil-A."

Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, said Wednesday's effort was to make sure the troops felt appreciated. But he also hoped it sends a message to military leaders.

"For me, it's a way of telling the people who are in charge of contracting and who either work in the Pentagon or the Guard Bureau, get out from behind your desk," said Bergman, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general.

"'Get out here, see what's going on with the troops. Make sure they're fed. Make sure they're housed. Make sure they're ready to do their do their mission, so nobody gets a free pass when it gets screwed up.'" 

Huizenga said he plans to introduce legislation Thursday to provide a partial, retroactive per diem for the troops who served at the Capitol through March 15 — the period covered by the Sardi's contract. 

The bill, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, is called the Guard Reimbursement for Unhealthy Bites (GRUB) Act. 

mburke@detroitnews.com