Shopping for your family during the holidays may seem like feeding an army. Think again. Think about Uncle Sam. He does feed the Army, not to mention the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines and the Coast Guard -- whether on aircraft carriers or submarines, in dining halls, veterans hospitals or commissaries.

This year's holiday shopping list -- and just for troop dining halls in Europe and the Middle East, includes: 12,600 pounds fruitcake 243,000 pounds cranberry sauce 421,000 pounds sweet potatoes 7,500 pounds hard candy

This doesn't take into consideration the 4.1 million tons of holiday food that were shipped overseas to be sold in commissaries throughout Europe and the Middle East, or the groceries for domestic troops. And while you might plan your shopping list a day or two before you go to the store, Uncle Sam has to order his Thanksgiving and Christmas larder by late spring.

Whether it's during the holidays or the rest of the year, peacetime or wartime, the logistics of feeding the military are more complicated than staging a Bob Hope special in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. government is probably the largest single buyer of food in the world, feeding more than 9 million people daily at a cost of $5 billion annually.

Given the immensity of this task, the military's reputation when it comes to defense spending and the service's lengthy lists of rules, specifications and acronyms, it's a wonder that anybody gets fed. In fact, the distribution network has so many tentacles that even the individuals entangled in it don't always agree how it operates.

The Mother Ship Command central is located at the Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC), a barracks-like complex in South Philadelphia that covers 11 city blocks. Aside from its responsibility for food ("subsistence" in military parlance), DPSC buys medical supplies and clothes, houses the nation's only government-owned military clothing facility and operates a lab that tests everything from the bullet resistance of helmets to the durability of GI boots.

Worldwide, there are about 1,700 individuals involved in buying, managing and transporting food for the military. Some work in the 23 warehouses in this country where they buy fresh fruits and vegetables and store frozen foods, or are employed in the four storage facilities that warehouse semi-perishables such as flour and sugar. At the Philadelphia facility, about 650 employes are involved in procuring food, whether it's dehydrated, freeze-dried, frozen or canned.

Somebody has to buy condiments in self-serve packets -- that's Judy Nordone. Nordone, who also buys eggs for the East Coast, has a map of the continental United States tacked on her bulletin board that delineates her egg-buying territory. Other procurement agents specialize in such items as turkeys or canned green beans.

DPSC receives orders by computer directly from its customers all over the world. If the items are not stocked, the orders go to the procurement division. Written solicitations are then sent to companies that have expressed an interest in selling, proposals are returned and DPSC chooses a bidder. If the items are already in stock, the orders are sent to one of the country's 27 storage locations, which in turn deliver the frozen or semi-perishables to the customer. Milk, dairy products and eggs are supplied by direct delivery.

Similar to stockpiling arms, buying food for the military involves keeping a production base alive during peacetime in the event of war. In other words, the government buys a lot of food that it doesn't currently need. In 1987, for example, DPSC bought 516 million ready-to-eat meals at a cost of $172 million. The rations, which have about a six-year shelf life, are stored in underground caves and above-ground warehouses around the world. They are rotated and used for field exercises prior to expiration.

The government buys food from both small and large companies, according to A.E. Cardone, assistant chief of contracting and production. Del Monte and Green Giant help feed the troops and Pillsbury supplies the bulk of the military's flour.

Not surprisingly, whatever DPSC buys has to be grown, manufactured or packaged in America. No items may be purchased from communist countries, either, so military personnel in Europe can't buy Czechoslovakian hams in their local commissaries. The buy-American regulation is bent only when it comes to buying highly perishable items, such as milk, for overseas units. (Nevertheless, commissaries in Turkey do sell Philadelphia Cream Cheese -- airlifted because of its perishability. Most of the food for overseas goes by sea.)

The government often sets tedious specifications for food packaging, due to the need for durable containers to withstand shipping stresses, the heat of a desert or prolonged shelf life. Jellies, jams, cake mixes -- even bacon -- come in a can, particularly necessary for Navy vessels where glass containers are obviously impractical.

The food itself must often adhere to rigid guidelines. Two years ago, to make a point about how overspecification contributes to America's military procurement problems, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), told the Senate about the military's requirements for fruitcake contractors.

The recipe included instructions that the candied pineapple be in quarter-inch chunks, the shortening have the stability "of not less than 100 hours" and that the cooled cake, "bisected" horizontally or vertically with a sharp knife, "shall not crumble nor show any compression streaks, gummy centers, soggy areas, be excessively dry or overprocessed and display an even grain structure throughout."

So that a serviceman might have coffee with his cake, taste testers at the Army's research lab in Natick, Mass., conducted tastings to determine the military's uniform blend for the 7 million pounds that is purchased annually (none of it decaffeinated). Tasters at the lab also help DPSC award bids for items such as pie fillings, soup and gravy mixes and dehydrated soups.

On this particular day, a DPSC staffer is packaging samples of salad dressings from competing companies to ship to the Natick lab. The six samples each of creamy italian and thousand island dressings ("we don't call it Russian," joked Tom Lydon, chief of DPSC's Depo Stock Section), are marked with A, B, C and so on for the blind tasting. After the pass/fail results come back, the dressing buyer in Philadelphia will award the contract to the company with a "pass" product at the lowest cost.

As is to be expected for a buyer with political purse strings, the subsistence division gets calls "all the time" from congressmen who want the agency to buy products from their constituents, according to Cardone. Cardone says that DPSC may help the constituent get on the mailing list for solicitations or will call the company and explain how to participate in the program. But when it comes to awarding contracts, Cardone said that the low bidder gets the award.

Nor are food specifications driven by politics, according to Cardone. "You would think there would be much more," he said, "but there aren't." During the Carter administration, Cardone recalls, troop issue specifications for ground beef were altered to include less costly soy protein.

Servicemen with flight status or those stationed in submarines still get pure ground beef, however -- and not because of politics. According to George Dunkin, chief of DPSC's meat section, soy protein in combination with rapid changes in depth or altitude causes flatulence.

The Middle Man Across the street from Safeway warehouses in Landover is the local food warehouse, or Defense Subsistence Office (DSO) for the Washington area, responsible for supplying about 50 military installations and commissaries, from Andrews Air Force Base to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The local DSO receives and stores chilled and frozen foods, such as meats, that have been ordered through DPSC. Two produce buyers purchase fresh fruits and vegetables daily from the wholesale markets at Jessup and Florida Avenue. Records and bills for all purchases are sent by computer to Philadelphia. A recent morning's expedition yielded about 125 different produce items, ranging from 601 cases of bananas to one case of japanese eggplant.

Eight Army food inspectors work full time at the warehouse, inspecting the food to make sure it is the correct size, shape and quantity. In fact, the military may eat some of the country's most highly scrutinized groceries.

Landover's inspection room is equipped with an egg candler to test for blood spots and other internal egg defects, a microwave to check the texture of frozen vegetables and a deep-fat fryer to ensure that frozen fish portions don't "warp" or curl when fried. According to inspector Sgt. Lawrence Smith, he may also test the breading on the fish to determine whether it's evenly distributed, or scrape it off and weigh it to ensure it doesn't exceed maximum breading levels. Inspectors are also required to taste foods to make sure they have retained their expected quality.

The Hungry Man At a Ft. Belvoir dining hall, SP/4 Josia Borom, 20, tall, lean and hungry, sits down to a dinner of a hamburger on a roll, slathered with condiments.

Borom doesn't know Charles Wrone, DPSC's customer service agent for Ft. Belvoir, who has recently taken an order for 1,620 pounds of ground beef from the base. Borom also doesn't know that there are staffers in Philadelphia preparing asset and forecast reports, projecting demand for ground beef at Ft. Belvoir at about 52,000 pounds for January 1988.

He doesn't know George Dunkin, who is charge of DPSC's meat section, which can buy $1 million worth of meat in a single morning, or the Army food inspector at Landover who may have sliced a section of frozen ground beef with a band saw and sent the sample to Ft. Meade for a random microbial check.

Borom only knows one thing as he gets ready to bite his burger: "It ain't Mama's cooking."