Friend or foe?  Threat or opportunity?  Fear it or embrace it?  These are the questions we must ask ourselves when looking at the Army’s Food Innovation and Transformation initiative.  The Army wants to change the way it feeds its troops.  Many traditional mess halls could someday go away.  The Army wants to at first enhance the feeding experience and maybe eventually replace it.  In reality, it has no choice.  Army officials are concerned about the unhealthy eating habits of their soldiers which affects preparedness and the long-term health of our troops.  Many soldiers choose to go to the Burger King or Popeye’s that AAFES operates on the bases where healthy choices are limited.   There is also the issue of recruitment.   It is hard to attract young people to serve in the military today and old fashioned mess halls are not a draw.  The Army thinks campus style dining might be. 

So, last fall, the Army issued a solicitation for a proof of concept project to establish campus style food courts on 5 bases.  The problem was there was no mention of the Randolph-Sheppard priority.  NABM went into action and immediately began meeting with Army officials, most notably Colonel Geoffrey Kent who it the lead on this initiative.  The solicitation was pulled and a new one issued.  The new solicitation changed the bases indicating instead that the project would be tested at Forts Drum, Bragg, Stewart, and Carson, as well as JBLM in the State of Washington.  Unfortunately, it did not have any mention of the R-S priority either.  NABM continued the education process with the Colonel and engaged the help of RSA.  The solicitaion was paused and as we go to press an amended solicitation is expected to be out any day.  That amendment is expected to include the Randolph-Sheppard priority.  At least, that is the commitment that has been made. 

As a result of NABM’s advocacy efforts and help from RSA and NCSAB, NABM believes the new solicitation will create opportunities for blind entrepreneurs on 5 bases.  That’s 5 business opportunities that we did not have before.  The opportunity will vary from base to base depending in large part on the wishes of the SLA and the Committee.  But the main thing is there will be new opportunities.  NABM probably could have fought this initiative and quite possibly killed it.  But who would have won?  Our troops do not win.  As for us, look around the country.  In the last 10 years, there are 800 fewer R-S vending facilities.  Many blind vendors remain out of work as the result of the pandemic.  We must start to look at things differently.  Our priority must be to create new opportunities and that means getting outside of the box, or as NABM President Nicky Gacos would say, throw away the box.  We cannot tell the Army how to feed its troops.  We can only work to ensure that blind entrepreneurs are part of any solution.  With that in mind, President Gacos wrote this letter to the Colonel> 

National Association of Blind Merchants
7450 Chapman Highway, #319
Knoxville, TN  37920

March 23, 2023
Colonel James G. Kent
PM Army Food Innovation Transformation
U.S. Army Material Command


Dear Colonel Kent:

The National Association of Blind Merchants (NABM) is a membership organization that represents the interests of all Randolph-Sheppard vendors across the country.  We are a division of the National Federation of the Blind, the largest organization of blind people in the world with over 50,000 members.,  We also work with the State Licensing Agencies (SLAs) providing training and technical assistance through our paid subscription program.  Four of the five states affected by the Army Food Innovation & Transformation initiative subscribe to our services and we maintain a close working relationship with all of them.  We do not claim to represent the SLAs but have had multiple conversations with the 5 states to discuss A-FIT and the possibilities it could offer to blind entrepreneurs.  

We have reviewed the paper you shared on inclusion of Randolph-Sheppard in A-FIT.   We appreciate your collaborative efforts to ensure that Randolph-Sheppard blind entrepreneurs are to participate in a meaningful way.  If we can create at least one stand-alone vending facility that produces a significant income for a blind vendor on each base, while at the same time supporting better food options for our troops, we can support the plan you have laid out and the language you have proposed for the solicitation.  We see this as a proof of concept and there may be opportunities to expand the roles of blind entrepreneurs even further at future bases if this project proves to be as successful as you envision.  

We have shared the options for creating opportunities for blind vendors as part of this initiative with the 5 SLAs  and all appear to be comfortable with the plan.  It is our firm belief that if an amended solicitation comes out with the desired Randolph-Sheppard language as noted in your paper, none of the states will challenge this through federal arbitration.  We think it is mutually beneficial to the SLAs and to the Army, as well as the blindness community, to find out if this model works.  If this program is expanded to other states in the future, there will need to be close collaboration to ensure any concerns of those SLAs can be addressed to avoid any opposition.  

Our support is also contingent upon the understanding that this initiative and our support for it will not in any way impact the priority Randolph-Sheppard has for other bases or buildings on the 5 bases that are part of the A-FIT initiative.  SLAs may continue, and are expected, to pursue opportunities on all Army bases.  In addition to bidding on troop dining contracts, SLAs will pursue through permits vending, micromarkets, C-Stores, snack shops, Quick Service Restaurants, etc. 

Once again, thank you for your willingness to collaborate with us and we look forward to the success of this project and the future opportunities it affords blind entrepreneurs.  We are happy to discuss this matter further with you or anyone else at DOD.  


Nicky Gacos, President