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'Comfort food' gets a whole new meaning

A local company has sent about 1-million meals as part of the Hurricane Wilma relief effort.

By TAMARA LUSH
Published November 1, 2005


MIAMI - During the past half-dozen or so hurricanes, I have stopped frequently at the ice/water/food relief stations to interview folks waiting in line.

On Saturday, I found myself standing in one of those lines. I lost power Oct. 24. I have been handling things pretty well: cold showers and warm drinking water are annoying, not life-shattering. My home was not damaged and I had plenty of gas for my car.

Yet when I saw a semitrailer loaded with ice just a few blocks from my house in Little Haiti, the lure of cold beverages was irresistible. After a couple of minutes, someone handed me a bag of ice. Then someone else shoved a little white cardboard box on top of my ice.

I opened it in the car, feeling like I had just received an unexpected gift. It was an entire meal, or three, in a box. I looked at the side of the box. It was packed by GA Food Services in St. Petersburg.

On Monday, I called Bruce Boore, who is in charge of emergency food sales for GA Food Services. I wanted to know more about my comfort box, which is actually known in the industry as a Shelf Stable Meal. ("Designed for use where refrigeration is a problem," according to the company Web site).

How many meals have you sent to South Florida for Hurricane Wilma?

Probably somewhere between 750,000 and a million meals to Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, or about 300,000 kits. Each kit - the box you received - is three meals. We put them together by hand on an assembly line. Under normal circumstances, we have a little under 200 employees. Under these circumstances, we're running about 400.

Do you tailor your meals to the area you are sending them? I noticed that my box had a distinctly Caribbean feel, with orange-pineapple juice, raisins and banana cookies. I have never heard of banana cookies. Are they for the Haitian people in my neighborhood?

No, that was strictly luck. There are three flavors used by that company in order to get an enhanced shelf life for those cookies. Banana is one flavor. If there was a tornado in Kansas, people would get the same box. I don't know if you noticed, but those cookies are made with Chiquita bananas, and we purposely go with specific brands so as to make people comfortable.

I was excited to receive the chocolate pudding. Yet I also received two Jell-Os. I would have preferred two puddings and only one Jell-O.

Probably at the time we were manufacturing that box we had greater access to the gelatin than the pudding. Today there might be boxes that have two puddings and one Jell-O. People have to recognize that there has been such a drain on the major food companies. They are having an extremely hard time keeping up with the need of these emergency meals.

How much does each meal cost?

A total box is $14. That's three meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner. And snacks.

So, you aren't just packaging meals for Wilma, you have packaged meals for hurricanes Katrina and Rita, also?

We've put out probably 4- or 5-million meals (in Katrina and Rita). We don't know exactly which state got our products. The thank-you notes we received were from people in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi.

You get thank-you notes?

Yes, we're averaging anywhere between three and five thank-you notes a day. We share them with our employees. We feel very good. Here's one from Jasper, Texas. I'm reading this verbatim, it's in lowercase, and has a lot of misspellings: "We live here in Texas where Rita hit. When we was introduced to hot meal beef stew we love it. We would like to know what else you have. Where can we buy it do you have any simple (sic) we can try some of the few we had people love it. Things almost back to normal here still a few power outage nevertheless we thank God and thank you. Donald."

I think a lot of times people think the meals are actually donated. I send people a note back, telling them the meals were purchased by FEMA. We don't want to take undue credit. Their tax dollars are paying for this.

How many calories were in my box of food?

It really depends. Like you pointed out, you had one pudding and two Jell-Os. Generally, anywhere from 95 to 125 percent of daily required calories. We know we're generally meeting the protein requirements for the day. We try to control the amount of sodium.

What are the most popular items in the boxes?

Some of the meals we put out have a self-heating can of food in them. Right now we are only able to produce a limited number of those, but that's been very, very popular. Tuna fish salad, that's been real popular. What makes it popular to one person doesn't make it popular to another. But we've been getting compliments across the board.

What is your favorite item?

Probably the ravioli.

How long is the shelf life of each box?

The meal you got will generally hold up for a year. We have designed a meal that will last a year and a half. If you were to buy it in April, it will get you through two hurricane seasons.

I also wanted to tell you: I chilled a bottle of chardonnay with the ice I received that day, and it went nicely with your Cheesums Pringles that came in the box.

(Laughing). You've thought outside the box.

Seriously, it made me feel really good to receive the box. It was very comforting. Thank you.

These meals are supposed to make people feel comfortable. We need to do something to relax the victims. Something to get them to feel like things will get better, to feel like there might be a tomorrow.

--Tamara Lush is the Times' statewide general assignment reporter. She can be reached at lush@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 1, 2005, 04:58:03]


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