If U.S. military forces do go to war with Iraq, at least one thing they can probably count on is a hot meal. The companies that make prepackaged meals for the military -- known as "Meals Ready to Eat," or MREs -- have been operating at nearly full capacity for the past several months.
Under a special contract with the Department of Defense, food processors are expect to produce millions of MREs, enough to sustain troops in the field for some time. NPR's Jack Speer recently visited a factory in Indiana to find out what goes into preparing a modern military meal.
Ameriqual Foods in Evansville, Ind., is one of the three U.S. companies that produces MREs for the military. Workers have been keeping up a blistering pace for the past several months, cooking food in huge batches. The company expects to prepare four million MREs each month through the spring.
"While there have been huge advances in military cuisine, if you're looking for Grandma's home cooking, don't expect to find it in an MRE," Speer says. Military meals are designed to be stored for years without refrigeration, and survive a drop from a helicopter.
Still, the meals are engineering marvels in their own right. Each MRE, sealed in heavy brown plastic, contains around 1,200 calories -- about one-third of the nutritional requirement of the average soldier, sailor or airman in the field. It also comes with a flameless, chemical heating device that can raise the temperature of the food by 100 degrees in about 10 minutes.
And compared to the C and K rations given to troops in the field in decades past, MREs are pretty tasty. Tim Porter, a production supervisor at Ameriqual Foods, is a Desert Storm veteran now in the Army Reserves. He says getting a decent meal in the field can be an important morale booster.
"I look at it from a different perspective," says Porter, who may be called up to serve in a second Persian Gulf war. "I've had to eat the MREs for four months at a time -- and you don't want to get a bad MRE."
There are now two dozen different MRE entrees, including mesquite chicken, vegetables in alfredo sauce and seafood jambalaya. Many meals also contain a packaged fruit, a snack, a beverage mix, even desert. "Military planners have already chosen several new menu items for the next generation of MREs, due out in 2005," Speer says. "It includes chicken fajitas, penne pasta with vegetables, salmon fillet -- even a sloppy joe, all in a pouch."
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