Rations from Natick center have familiar quality
By Sheryl Julian, Globe Staff | June 6, 2007
The peelable seal on the top of the tan plastic bag is so difficult to open that I decide to use scissors. Inside are a half-dozen smaller bags, some containing multiple items, including salt. This military-issue Meal, Ready- to-Eat, Individual -- known as an MRE -- has chicken fajitas as its entree. One pouch holds the sauce, studded with chicken and bell peppers; another, two soft wheat tortillas .
A typical MRE is a starchy affair, intended for "war fighters," as the people who develop the meals at the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center call men and women in the field. Teams of experts and medical personnel work on new MREs every year, using ratings from the people who have to eat them. In the 27 years that these packages have been sent to fighting zones (and regions hit by natural disasters ), they've been dropped from planes, stored on ships, and subjected to the kind of manhandling you would never want your own groceries to go through. They are reevaluated constantly, and a new group appears annually, with some items voted off the battlefield, others added by popular demand. The production cost of each meal is about $6.25 to $7.25 and includes food from dozens of vendors. The folks at the Natick labs know all the nicknames fighters use to describe MREs; one of the kindest is "Meals Rejected by Everybody."
My nephew, a Marine, returned from Iraq recently with stories about the rations. As he describes , mealtimes have a grammar school quality. But instead of "Want two Oreos for a handful of chips?" it's "I'll trade you cheese spread for peanut butter." The Natick labs encourage trading. "They've always done that, as long as they've been providing rations to troops," says spokesman Jeremiah Whitaker. "Cheese spread with jalapenos is like gold out there." Older military personnel prefer coffee (in the meals, it's Taster's Choice instant with powdered nondairy creamer); younger ones like cocoa and other sweetened drinks.
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