When we think of ready-to-eat meals, we usually think of those packets of nutrient-dense soldiers' rations, like the Army sandwich that stays fresh for two years. These pouches of food are typically deployed in the field, and are consequently designed to withstand the abuses of temperature and time that would destroy fresh fare.
In the last week, a close cousin of these practically indestructible vittles has moved out of Red Cross and Federal Emergency Management Agency warehouses and into the hands of the ordinary citizens of New York and New Jersey hurt by Superstorm Sandy's bluster and flooding last week.
The total number of ready-to-eat meals distributed in the wake of the storm is a figure that's hard to come by since operations are ongoing. New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs spokesperson Kryn Westhoven says National Guard troops have delivered more than 25,000 emergency meals to resident of Hoboken alone, one of the hardest hit areas in the state, in the last six days.
The Red Cross says it has deployed more than 334,000 ready-to-eat meals to the 10 states facing the most storm damage, and FEMA's Mary Olsen tells The Salt "more than 4.8 million liters of water and more than 2.4 million meals have been transferred to states to supplement their existing inventory."
Now, to be clear, these pouched meals are distinct from the hundreds of thousands of meals made fresh in makeshift kitchens and delivered hot to residents. The Red Cross estimates it has already delivered over a million of those meals so far and counting, says spokeswoman Anne Marie Borrego.
But what exactly are people getting in the oft-maligned little packets? "They're very high in calories — they're not a light food," says Westhoven. He admits his standby is "beanie-weenie," a frankfurters and beans type meal, "because I know I can eat it cold. It's kind of like cold pizza," he says.
But the prepackaged meals sent to storm victims go way beyond beanie-weenies.
"It might be Chicken Caccitore, chili and rice, beef stew, all kinds," says Joice Williams, a senior associate at the Red Cross who is helping coordinate efforts in the most affected states.
And they're often free of pork these days.
"We try and be cognizant of dietary restrictions, for example, they are lower in sodium than [soldiers'] MREs and have less calories. There are vegetarian and Kosher options," FEMA's Olsen says.
Ally Kist, a nurse and EMT who was volunteering at a shelter that lost power in Teterboro, N.J., when the storm hit, says the best FEMA meal she got was Buffalo chicken. It came with Saltine crackers, peanut butter, spreadable cheese and instant coffee, as well as a packet that can heat the food in about 10 minutes, just by adding water. "It's pretty cool and semi-bearable," she tells The Salt.
While she says she was grateful for a hot meal, she gave the flavors mixed reviews. "I learned the hard way that the only ones worth eating were the chicken ones and the vegetable ones," she tells us.
Military MRE rations have changed a lot since the U.S. Army first introduced the modern version to troops in 1975. The coffee has improved and there's hot sauce, wet-packed fruit and even chocolate in some of them, according to an unofficial but comprehensive web site featuring current MRE menus, reviews, and more.
Now, the Red Cross assures us that their MREs are lower in calories than the soldiers,' but they are still filling. Best of all, says Williams, they now come with their own self-heating device that only requires a little water to activate.
And, as military officials and aid workers know well, a hot meal can go a long way to helping someone both physically and mentally.
So how do our MRE offerings stack up against other countries' versions? See for yourself. Slate posted this comparative slide show last year.