U.S. sends politically correct meals to feed refugees anywhere in world

Plastic packages puzzle Kosovar refugees, but empties litter border

War In Yugoslavia

April 14, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It is government-sanctioned food at its most politically correct -- no pork, no fanciful entrees, no culturally confusing packaging. Refugees from Kosovo are eating meals designed to endure free-falls of 10,000 feet and still not offend.

A careful demonstration of international concern, yes. But is it edible?

One report from the Kosovo border this week alleged that a handful of refugees burned the meal packages, saying the food made them sick. The U.S. European Command sent a doctor to the field and found nothing wrong with the people -- only that they didn't like the food.

"Even when people are hungry they look at these things and say, `What is this?' " said Bill Frelick, a senior policy analyst for the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a Washington-based humanitarian aid group. "People are just not used to getting their meals in plastic boxes. Even in the midst of gratitude and hunger, there can be an eyebrow that is raised."

The packages are known as Humanitarian Daily Rations, or HDRs, staple meals meant to be damage-resistant and culturally neutral. The idea is to create a ration that can be eaten anywhere in the world on a moment's notice -- such as observant Jews and Muslims who are not allowed to eat pork or pork products.

These days, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian refugees are trying items such as government-approved lentil stew, set to a certain global blandness standard.

"This clearly is not food people are used to," said Michael Porter, a program director with Adventist development and relief agency who is distributing food in Kukes, Albania, where the largest number of refugees from Kosovo have arrived.

But at the same time, Porter added, the border is littered with thousands of empty HDR packages, and demand for more rations is soaring. "People are very grateful to have the food," he said. "Maybe one or two kids dropped a saltine, but that's it. This food is getting eaten."

The U.S. military, which oversees delivery of the meals, has sent 760,000 rations and recently put out a call to three U.S. companies to produce at least 300,000 more. At these U.S. factories -- already busy with domestic demand from Americans worried about a potential year 2000 computer crisis -- production lines are running at full throttle.

With a shelf life of three years, the hermetically sealed food is meant to endure wretched conditions that come with global crises. The goulash and shortbread cookies are guarded from changing temperatures and other trauma with three layers of nearly puncture-proof plastic.

The rations are a scientifically calibrated, 2,200-calorie mix of proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins -- enough for a day's nutrition without any meat or animal byproducts such as cheese or butter. Wrapped in yellow plastic (red was ruled out because some cultures consider it a color of war), the meals cost $3.75. Their lightweight packages are designed so that if dropped from airplanes, they will flutter to the ground instead of falling like bombs.

The humanitarian meals were developed about five years ago, when the United States still was offering refugees Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs -- high-calorie rations designed for soldiers in the field. The HDR idea was inspired by the problems during the Kurdish crisis, just after the Persian Gulf war, when Kurds receiving U.S. assistance would not eat the pork in those rations.

After that, the military turned to private food processors to dream up alternatives.

AmeriQual Foods in Evansville, Ind., worked for weeks to try to get the formula right, eyeing the aesthetics of the rations and tasting pound after pound of lab food.

"I'm fortunate enough that I have a high enough metabolism," said John Tate, director of product development for AmeriQual, who tasted dozens of emergency meal ideas. The company finally settled on several side dishes with five basic entrees: Rice with beans, brown and wild rice with lentils, bean salad, beans with potatoes and lentils with vegetables.

Two other companies making rations stuck to the same basic idea. "These HDRs are available to go anywhere," Tate said, "Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia. So what that leaves you with, really, is beans. There's not a whole lot else to go with."

All this is not to say that no creativity was attempted.

Tate, a former resident of Charleston, S.C., sent the military a sample of protein-rich black-eyed peas and okra. "It was a big flop," he said. So he and his team of researchers called their mothers for ideas. One mother's version of five-bean salad ultimately inspired an entree.

But there will be no "Mom's Bean Salad" sent to Kosovo. The U.S. government asked HDR producers not to create fanciful names, for fear refugees could misconstrue them and reject the meals.

So, the rations are marked simply "A Food Gift From the People of the United States of America," and delivered with pictures showing how to stretch the rations into two meals.

During refugee crises in the past, matching cultures with food proved tough.

When the Haitian refugees were at Guantanamo Bay, they looked at what the U.S. soldiers were eating and tried to swap their humanitarian food for the military's prepackaged meals.

One HDR producer, Wornick Co., has tried to give this formula a Balkans twist. During the Bosnia conflict, Wornick executives figured they would be sending food to the Balkans for some time, so they invited Bosnians to stop by their South Texas plant for taste tests. Now, the company hopes that Bosnian-friendly food will work for the Kosovars.

"We wanted to make products that seemed to make sense to them," said Bill Barth, president of the Right Away division at the McAllen company. This month, the manufacturer plans to send a new potato-based entree to the Defense Department to add to its Balkan shipments.

Barth is vague on the details. But, he promises, it will be "creative."

Pub Date: 4/14/99

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