The Maryland Food Bank is waiting for an unusual shipment from the federal government -- three truckloads of MREs left over from the Persian Gulf War.
The ultimate bounty could range anywhere from 200,000 to almost 300,000 of the vacuum packed portions known as Meals Ready to Eat, lightweight plastic pouches of full meals designed to be eaten by soldiers in the field.
The distribution is part of the federal government's ongoing "Operation Desert Share," a $300 million surplus food give-away that began in July and is expected to last through February, said Kathryn L. Gaddy, an associate administrator of public affairs for the General Services Administration.
"If there's a benefit of war, this is it," Gaddy said.
Maryland Food Bank director William Ewing is bemused, but nevertheless grateful for what he expects will be three tractor-trailer loads of MREs, MOREs (assortments of brand name products that are not as "field-hardy" as MREs) and T-rations, large trays of entrees that can serve 18-20 people.
"We don't really know who we'll give them to," said Ewing, whose staff inspected a sample MRE last week at their Franklintown Road warehouse. "It is unexpected and unusual and probably unique."
Operation Desert Share began with the distribution of perishable and semi-perishable food, such as frozen meat, fish and cheese pizzas. It then moved into a second phase, giving away canned goods, some of which have already been distributed in Maryland among the food bank's "on-site" clients, such as shelters and soup kitchens.
The MRE shipment represents phase three, as some of the millions of MREs originally sent to the Persian Gulf return from Saudi Arabia and ports throughout the world. Ewing has heard that the MREs will come from Singapore through the port of Oakland, then be loaded onto tractor-trailers. But Gaddy said she has no details about the shipment.
Once here, the MREs could be given out to pantries, Ewing said, or perhaps used to tide homeless people through the weekends, when some soup kitchens are closed.
The kits include not only food, he pointed out, but an "accessory pack" with matches and toilet paper. The plastic-wrapped pouches weigh only 1 1/2 pounds, can sustain huge extremes in temperature and have a shelf life of up to three years.
"If it does become a popular item, we could save them for the winter after this and the winter after that," Ewing said.
"They can use it however they want to, in-state," said Gaddy. "We have no jurisdiction, but we suggest it be given to people in need."
Under law, GSA may give excess federal property to only federal andstate agencies. In Operation Desert Share, 50 percent goes to the Interagency Council on the Homeless, which then gives it to Second Harvest, a national supplier for food banks. The remaining half is divided among other federal agencies and State Agencies for Surplus Property in 34 states.
In Maryland, the food bank and the state worked together, aggressively pursuing the available food, Ewing said. Some states have been more passive, Gaddy said, and two states initially rejected the leftovers, then reconsidered.
Gaddy said the project's timing has been fortuitous -- providing food in the summer months, when donations are typically low, and extending through the winter months, when more shelters are open and pantries have more clients.
Ewing hopes no one sees the MREs as a reason not to participate in canned food drives.