From World War II through the mid-1980s, American military personnel ate their meals from little green cans. This "provision du jour" for troops far afield was called the C ration. Like the ubiquitous Spam, it became a source for humor as well as nutrition.
But the C ration -- like Spam -- has gone the way of the B-17 bomber and the M-1 rifle. Technology has not only resulted in smart bombs and Patriot missiles, but in improved food packaging with names like MRE (Meals Ready to Eat), MORE (Meals Ordered Ready to Eat) and T-Rations (Tray Packs).
Since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August, the Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC) has purchased $668.5 million worth of these food items. In addition, the government has purchased $2.3 million worth of sugar, $1.8 million worth of flour and $3.4 million worth of coffee for troops stationed in the Persian Gulf.
The main military meals are MREs, a category developed over the last seven years. These were designed to be all the things C-Rations were not -- compact, lightweight and, government officials maintain, better-tasting. Lorraine Netzko, a public-affairs specialist with the DPSC in Philadelphia, described them as plastic packets of food.
"You get one big packet, rip it open, and inside are individual pouches with food sealed inside," she said. "The main entree could be chicken a la king, spaghetti with meat sauce, tuna with noodles, chicken with rice, chicken stew, pork with rice and barbecue sauce, scalloped potatoes with ham, beef stew, corned-beef hash, chicken stew or ham slices."
(Yes, ham has been sent to Persian Gulf troops in four MREs, though pork products are banned in Saudi Arabia.)
Netzko said there were 12 different MRE menus. All have a shelf life of about three years. The food is cooked and sealed into the pouches. Also included in the main pouch are the necessary utensils.
The meals can be heated by placing the pouch on the desert sand and letting the sun take over, or by using vehicle fenders and radiators. In a pinch, they can be eaten cold.
Pouches can also be put into a long bag known as a Zest-O-Therm, which includes a chemical that will heat the food to 100 degrees in 12 minutes after two ounces of water is added. Zest-O-Therm pads eventually will be included with each MRE.
Other food packets inside the main MRE pouch can include a dehydrated fruit; a jelly, peanut or cheese spread; a cracker; an oatmeal cookie bar or cherry nut bar; brownies; a packet of cocoa; a beverage powder in a flavor such as lemon-lime, and an accessory pack that has coffee, cream substitute, sugar, salt, matches, toilet tissue, chewing gum and a towelette.
One of the newest MRE food items is a two-ounce loaf of bread that will be available in white and, possibly, whole wheat -- also with a shelf life of three years.
The extended shelf life was obtained by developing packaging that draws out the excess moisture and oxygen. Because the bread has not yet gone through the full three-year testing period, it's scheduled to be distributed along with MREs later this year. When testing is complete, it could be included inside each MRE.
According to Harvey Keene, a public-affairs officer with the Army Research, Engineering and Development Center in Natick, Mass., where MREs were developed, the Persian Gulf operation has been the first broad-based use of these updated food packets.