Hello everybody! I’m excited to bring in a guest for today’s post. Amanda C is an Air Force officer in the Force Support career field. She currently oversees a Sustainment Services flight. Meanwhile, she is pursuing a Master’s degree in Finance (woohoo!). She offered to help me out today by writing up a post about a subject I have no experience with, Essential Station Messing. Thank you Amanda! Take it away…
We should all know a bit about Basic Allowance for Subsistence (BAS) (if you need a refresher, click here). But have you ever heard of one of its forms, Essential Station Messing (ESM)? ESM is formally known as the meal card. Although these terms may only be familiar to you if you’ve been a junior enlisted member assigned to single (unaccompanied) government quarters, they’re an important part of the total compensation package offered to U.S. Service Members.
If you’re a junior troop, it is a part of your pay as a form of your BAS. If you supervise junior troops, it can be part of a great conversation. Furthermore, if you’re a commander then understanding this program is an important part of taking care of your people.
So what is Essential Station Messing, anyway?
The bottom line is that ESM is a commander’s program to ensure that folks get adequate and nutritious meals. It is why certain enlisted members are directed to eat at Dining Facilities (DFACS).
The specifics are a bit more mundane but we’ll look at a brief overview. It is DoD policy that military members entitled to basic pay are also entitled to BAS with a few exceptions. For exceptions, I can’t recommend this article enough!
One of those stipulations regards enlisted members (see DoDI 1418.05):
4.3.3. Permanently assigned to live in single Government quarters ashore and in grades E1 through E6 shall be entitled to BAS and may also be assigned to ESM. Enlisted members assigned to ESM shall be charged for all meals the U.S. Government makes available. Charges (at the discount meal rate) shall be directly deducted from the member’s pay account. If assigned duties or dining facility exigencies prevent the Government from providing meals, charges shall be adjusted for affected meals. Members assigned to ESM shall not have meal charges deducted from pay when on leave, on permanent change of station (PCS) status, in the hospital, or on temporary duty (TAD/TDY) other than TAD/TDY to sea duty, field duty, EUM, or group travel.
188.8.131.52. ESM shall be applied uniformly for all enlisted members permanently assigned to single Government quarters at the same installation, station, base or ship. Exceptions may be made only when assigned duties cause an individual to miss more than 20 percent of their meals the Government furnishes on a monthly basis.
184.108.40.206. The Military Services shall establish Service-wide written criteria, according to this Directive, for installation, base, or station commanders responsible for single Government quarters and messing to use in setting the rules for implementing ESM at the local level.
Thanks DoDI! But what does this mean?
If you’re an E1-E6, you could be placed on this ESM program at the direction of your Commander in lieu of receiving a BAS payment. The program has to be implemented uniformly across an installation/station, base, or ship for all members.
At my current base, this means that all E4s and below who live in unaccompanied quarters (i.e. the dorms) are enrolled in the ESM program which tends to be fairly typical. It also means that if you’re part of an ESM program, you should be monitoring your pay closely when you go on leave, are in PCS status, or go TDY as you “shall not have meal charges deducted” during these times and should receive a prorated amount back in your paycheck to compensate for these meals.
Missing a meal that you’re entitled to due to mission/duty while you’re still at your duty station is different. In that case, members are entitled to missed meal compensation. Local policies may vary but most First Sergeants would be able to help you route the form.
If you miss more than 20% of your meals in a month you may be entitled to BAS. That’s about 18 meals if you use 3 meals a day times 30 days in a month.
If you’re a commander, work with the food service team and make sure the operating hours work for your troops who are entitled to eat in the dining facility, maintain your ESM rosters, and lookout for mission related missed meals (exercises and other surges to your ops tempo).
Ok, great! But why?
I’m most familiar with the Air Force system so an Air Force Instruction (AFI) is what I used:
From AFI 34-239:
220.127.116.11. With the exception of basic trainees and certain categories of personnel, all military members draw BAS. Formerly known as meal cards, Essential Station Messing (ESM) is messing declared by the installation, base, or station commander responsible for single government quarters, that is essential to operate the government mess efficiently and economically, or that is necessary for the health and safety of enlisted personnel permanently assigned to single quarters. Those categories of enlisted members included in ESM will be charged for all meals made available whether eaten or not, except for approved missed meals.
The answer is the health and safety of Airmen. Adequate and nutritious food is mission essential. It keeps bodies fueled, minds sharp, and troops in top shape.
Most dorms do not have adequate food preparation, cooking, and storage facilities. As much as I loved my coffee pot ramen and exploring a short career as a literal “iron chef” in college (it’s amazing what you can accomplish with two irons, electricity, and aluminum foil) subsisting this way long term (like an entire assignment) isn’t great.
Eating at your local Dining Facility gives the Commander and other subordinate supervisors the peace of mind that their youngest troops have the opportunity to eat three square meals a day. For those on ESM, it means you can get a lot of food and never have to worry about menu planning, grocery shopping, cooking, or clean up…score!
This means you have a great opportunity to potentially save time and money in other areas such as
- a car (no need to haul groceries!)
- having more free time to dedicate to yourself (studying for the next rank, accomplishing a degree, working out, or just spending quality time with friends)
So, what actually happens to my BAS?
A common misconception is that the installation’s dining facilities are sent each ESM members’ BAS and that the facility uses that money to purchase the food served in the facility. Although this is completely logical, it doesn’t actually happen that way.
Since the unit commander actually controls the ESM roster for their unit, when there is a change (someone is added or removed due to situations like PCS in or out, marriage, divorce, gaining or losing a dependent) they process it through finance/DFAS and the local food service team then makes updates based on provided changes. No actual money is sent to the dining facility since it is withheld at the DFAS level. This is why ESM members can just swipe their CAC instead of exchange money at every meal.
What about when I go TDY?
There are rules if you are assigned TDY to a base and directed to eat at the Dining Facility, too.
This one really gets into the weeds of the Joint Travel Regulation (JTR) and the DoDIs. The short version is that every installation that has an appropriated fund (APF) food facility provides updates on their capabilities. These updates flow through your friendly Defense Travel System (DTS) and wind up directing you to use the Dining Facility or not which effects your orders and your per diem rates.
I’m not Essential Station Messing but I want to eat at a Dining Facility, can I?
The installation commander technically ‘owns’ the appropriated dining facilities on a given installation. The commander is responsible for determining the local policy on who can eat within the facility so ask the local dining facility manager for their policy memo. This means there can be variations from one base to another, even within the same Major Command.
If you’re not ESM but are authorized to dine in the facility you’ll be considered a full rate customer and have to pay for your meal (usually in cash).