EVANSVILLE, Ind. – Stateside kitchens have moved into overtime keeping up with the hungry mouths of nearly 300,000 men and women deployed around the world for a possible war with Iraq.
In Evansville, one of the Department of Defense's three contract sites for prepackaged meals, or MREs, has been making about 350,000 cases per month, a jump from 90,000. Ameriqual Foods Inc. has doubled its workforce from 425 to 850 to meet the demand.
"Some of the buildup started after the operations in Afghanistan. Even more so recently," said Tim Brauer, the company's chief operating officer. "We're running all our production lines 24-7."
The meals in glossy tan packaging are durable, capable of being stored for three years in a bone-chilling 60 degrees below zero or in heat that reaches a scorching 120 degrees in the desert. They arrive intact, dropped from helicopters or tossed with parachutes from airplanes.
Jerry Darsch, director of the Department of Defense's combat feeding program, won't say how many MREs are being made in Evansville and two others plants in McAllen, Texas, and Mullins, S.C. But he says it's enough to feed every soldier in the field.
"No matter what the demand for MREs, our production base will always meet it," Darsch said. "They'll never go hungry."
Thai chicken, country captain chicken, beef teriyaki, and pasta with vegetables are the current fare. Sloppy joes, spicy vegetarian penne, and cheese and vegetable omelets will replace them in 2005. White chocolate raspberry cookies and peppermint Skittles will be added.
First Sgt. James Gamble, who still cringes when he recalls the prepackaged ham and chicken loaf dinners the Army served during the Persian Gulf War more than a decade ago, said the meals taste much better than their retired tin can counterparts.
"It didn't taste like ham, and it didn't taste like chicken," said Gamble, a soldier with the 101st Airborne Division. "If it doesn't taste like chicken, you know it's bad. Everything tastes like chicken."
Today, the mystery meats and no-name casseroles Gulf War fighters ate are gone. Complaints about the taste, and fears soldiers wouldn't eat food they didn't like, caused the Department of Defense to reevaluate its menu.
The number of selections has doubled to 24. The offerings appeal to the modern palates with selections like burritos and shrimp jambalaya. Treats like M&Ms and Tootsie Rolls are also included.
The innovations and taste testing are an attempt to get soldiers to eat. Research shows soldiers in extreme fighting conditions can burn 6,000 calories a day and suffer from "stress-induced anorexia," during which they often refuse to eat.
Each MRE has about 1,300 calories and is Surgeon General-approved with the right nutrients to provide balanced meals for 21 days, though commanders in some situations might serve MREs longer, Darsch said.
Field tests with troops in Afghanistan confirmed that soldiers like the changes, Darsch said. They're waterproof and vermin-proof.
"The link between a high quality meal, mood, morale and ultimately performance is inextricably linked," Darsch said. "If they are well-fed, they'll think more clearly. They'll be able to perform their mission more effectively, and hopefully we'll get them out of harm's way and back home where they belong."
The troops now deployed have production workers, menu makers, and taste testers in this Ohio River City to thank. Kitchen workers sample each batch of MREs for quality.
They understand their customers -- the soldiers who have no where else to turn for a hot meal and a taste of home.
"Our customers are on the front line of defense for the United State of America," Darsch said. "So I think it's even more important we give them the best quality."