Man! I Should Have That! (or Five Things That Belong on Every Canteen)

This article originally appeared in The Savation Army’s Southern Spirit newspaper.

Sometimes I find it hard to write anything new about disaster canteens.

It’s not that I don’t love canteens — far from it. In fact, I can’t imagine a Salvation Army disaster program without them. But, when it comes to writing about our trusty mobile kitchens, it’s hard to find a new angle – especially one that doesn’t begin (and end) with the same old axiom, “and if you do nothing else, be sure to maintain your canteen!”

But what if you are already doing that? What if your canteen starts easily, the generator has been recently serviced and purrs contentedly when running, you’ve checked your tires for dry rot, and you’ve already tested all the major appliances, including lighting the stove – well, what else is there to do? Can anything be done to make that canteen even better?

Well … after a unit is mechanically sound, it’s time for outfitting. And, as in maintenance, your canteen may already be stocked with the basics: pots, pans, utensils, cleaners, sanitizers and disposable supplies, like garbage bags, clamshell food containers and cups. But beyond the basics, there are some handy items which may not come immediately to mind … but should be on every canteen.

So without further ado, here’s five things that make me say, “Man! I should have that!”

1. Food Thermometers. The most important responsibility of any canteen crew is to make sure all food is served safe. That means keeping cold food cold and hot food hot. That’s why a food thermometer is the number one item on my list. A food thermometer is the only sure way to monitor the temperature of food, and every canteen worker ought to have their own bimetallic stemmed thermometer and know how to properly calibrate it. And while you’re at it, splurge and buy a thermocouple for your canteen too. Thermocouples are digital thermometers that can get accurate readings in about 2 – 4 seconds, making them easier to use and more accurately read.

2. Disposable Gloves. Most people know to wear disposable gloves when handling food, but what often gets overlooked is how often those gloves need to be changed. Any time you change tasks or begin working with a different type of food, it’s also time to wash your hands and change to a fresh pair of gloves – so every canteen should have boxes of gloves on board. Oh … and be sure to use food grade, latex-free gloves. Handling food with latex gloves can be very dangerous to people allergic to latex and cause a life-threatening reaction.

3. Assorted Serving Spoons. Here’s a rule: one spoon is never enough. You should have at least a half dozen serving spoons on your canteen and ideally, a separate spoon for each type of food. This will help prevent cross contamination, especially if you are serving from a buffet line made up of multiple Cambro® food containers. Utensils with different colored handles are particularly helpful; you can designate specific colors for specific tasks, like green handles for salads and red for meats.

4. MREs / Shelf-Stable Meals. Adding a case of MREs (or shelf-stable meals) may seem like an odd recommendation for a canteen, until you consider that many items on our disaster menu, like beef stew, contain a number of different ingredients. This makes it hard to advise people with food allergies and special dietary restrictions exactly what’s in each dish we serve – and a mistake could make someone uncomfortable or worse dangerously sick. Manage this risk by having shelf stable meals on your canteen. Ingredients are clearly listed on each package so, in a pinch, you can offer these meals to individuals with dietary restrictions. is one my favorite choices for this type of product; a case of 12 assorted meals costs only about $60 and can last up to 5 years!

5. Numerex GPS Tracker. Want to always know where your canteen is? If your unit has a properly installed and operating GPS tracker on it, your wish is fulfilled. Simply login to, key in a user name and password, and you’ll be able to see on a map (down to street level) the location of your canteen. Now, it’s probably not a good idea publish those passwords here, but trust us. On a major disaster, our GPS system helps disaster personnel keep track of the myriad of mobile disaster units deployed and their movements. If you want to know more or your canteen doesn’t have a working GPS unit installed, contact your divisional EDS director.

That wraps up my fab five canteen items, but I’m sure that there are plenty of other enterprising canteen gurus who have even more. I’d love to hear what you consider essential gear; drop me a note at