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Operation Chefs United

Troops visiting the United Service Organizations (USO) at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport have been enjoying meals from a volunteer program since 2004, according to the executive director of the American Culinary Federation Greater Atlanta Chapter, Inc.

Cheryl Glass said Operation Chefs Unite is a charitable program operated and developed the culinary group's local chapter. Glass said Operation Chefs Unite works to make sure men and women in the armed forces are fed during their stay at the USO at Hartsfield-Jackson, which is located on the third floor of the airport's atrium.

Mary Lou Austin, who oversees the airport USO and is president and CEO of USO Georgia, Inc., said she is very appreciative of the meals that Operation Chefs Unite provide to the troops.

Operation Chefs Unite "is absolutely important because they provide a very valuable service and resource," said Austin. "It gives a feeling of not only home, but a special feeling to the men and women of the armed forces."

"USO is a home away from home, and with these home-cooked meals [it] really fits right into our mission," said Austin. "We're so thankful for their service."

Glass said Operation Chefs Unite provides sandwiches for troops five days per week, and 13 holiday meals throughout the year, on holidays such as Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"At this point in time, it's [the Operation Chefs Unite program] only in the Atlanta Chapter," said Glass. "We have talked to several chapters around the state to encourage [participation]. We are the only ones, that I know of, doing it."

Glass said chefs who volunteer for the program understand the sacrifices troops are making to defend the country.

Chef Rusty Sigmon, vice president of the American Culinary Federation Atlanta Chapter, said the program began in 2004.

He said he has been a coordinator of Operation Chefs Unite for the last four years. As coordinator, Sigmon said he schedules volunteer chefs to work throughout the year, to assure the troops are fed.

Sigmon said the sandwiches are made the chefs of East Lake Golf Club, in Atlanta, as well as student chefs of Chattahoochee Technical College, in Marietta, the Art Institute of Atlanta and Le Cordon Bleu, in Atlanta.

"These guys prepare sandwiches for troops on a daily basis," said Sigmon.

Sigmon said the sandwiches are picked up USO volunteers and taken to the USO.

Deli meats for the sandwiches are usually donated to the golf club and culinary colleges food brokers, manufacturers and distributors throughout the city, including Sysco and U.S. Foodservice, he said.

Sigmon said for the 13 holidays, troops are provided with a buffet that includes themed food items for the corresponding holiday.

Sigmon said troops will enjoy a meal on Thanksgiving, which includes turkey, ham, collard greens, stuffing and hot rolls, prepared Chef Hermann Schatzer, of the Georgia Tech Hotel and Conference Center, in Atlanta.

According to Sigmon, the chefs, themselves, deliver the holiday meals.

Sigmon said he served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1972, in the Vietnam War.

He said he understands how it feels to be away from home.

"It was comforting, at that time in my life, that there were people supporting me in my country," said Sigmon.

Chef Howard Cooper said he is also a coordinator for Operation Chefs Unite.

Cooper said that in 2004, Austin, the USO president, contacted Bessie Lee, a food service instructor at Warren Technical School in Chamblee.

"Mary Lou contacted Ms. Lee and asked her if her students could make 300 sandwiches for the troops ... that one time," explained Cooper.

Cooper said Lee asked the Culinary Federation's Atlanta Chapter if there were chefs who wanted to volunteer in assisting the school, and they agreed.

"After having done that, we thought it would be a good idea to keep doing it, until all of them come home," Cooper said.

Cooper said he is also a veteran, and served in both the U.S. Army and the United States Air Force.

"It has been a labor of love," said Cooper about the Operation Chefs Unite program, "to realize what this is to troops, and to see them happy when they receive these meals."

Sigmon added that Operation Chefs Unite continually accepts monetary donations. For more information, contact Sigmon at (678) 852-9138.