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A Gift That Bombs?  
Our columnist chews over one of the 37,000 meals being dropped daily on Afghanistan  

    Oct. 15 —  These days, the American war on Afghanistan has a split personality. By night, our missiles and fighter jets take off from the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Indian Ocean to reign destruction on the Taliban regime.  

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  BY MORNING, AFTER 12 hours in flight and one mid-air refueling, C-17 Globemaster cargo jets from the Ramstein Air Base in Germany drop 37,000 bright yellow packages of food for impoverished Afghans. Each package of “Humanitarian Daily Rations” explains in English, French and Spanish that the contents—two meatless lentil or bean entrees, packets of peanut butter and jelly, two Pop Tart-like fruit “pastries,” two dry crackers that can only be described as really bad matzo, two fig bars and a shortbread cookie—are a “food gift from the people of the United States of America.”
       Obviously, we are a giving people. We never bomb a country empty-handed. As a bemused observer of that morbid spectacle known as the American diet, I had been panicked that any food “gift” from the American “people” would resemble our country’s typical daily intake of donuts, frozen pizza, fried foods and supersized chalupas all washed down with a Big Gulp of Coke. And that’s just breakfast.
       Indeed, if an American’s daily ration were packed up and dropped over Afghanistan, it could be a more potent weapon than a smart bomb.
       Though skeptical, I was gratified to discover that these meals are actually nutritionally balanced. Working with the U.N. and other food agencies, the U.S. military devised a 2,200-calorie meal that’s perfectly balanced between protein (10 to 13 percent), fat (27 to 30 percent) and carbohydrates (above 60 percent).
       It made me wish that the Pentagon was dropping these Humanitarian Daily Rations in some parts of our country.
       Of course, these HDRs are no long-term solution—they have a shelf-life of 18-to-24 months, so that precludes fresh vegetables—but they are healthy.
       Assured of the meals’ nutrition, I naturally worried that these HDRs wouldn’t taste very good. After all, in our country, the options always seem to be “tastes great” or “less filling.” So how good could something that’s “more filling” taste?
       I called the Pentagon and asked them to send over one of these humanitarian daily rations. Naturally, they refused (someone there obviously realized that if I wasn’t an important-enough journalist to be targeted with anthrax, I wasn’t important enough to receive an HDR).
       I even called Wornick Packaging, one of the companies that actually make these HDRs (they also make frozen beef stew that you microwave and is sold at a 7-Eleven), but company officials refused to talk, let alone send me an HDR.
       But I pulled a few strings and soon found someone at something called Defense Supply Center Philadelphia who was willing to see the propaganda benefit of giving me a free meal (something New York City publicists have long understood).
       My packet was labeled “Menu 2” and consisted of a vegetable barley stew and black-eyed peas in tomato sauce. I didn’t think the entrees were very good. The stew tasted like mushy rice without any flavor and the peas were like bland veggie chili—both desperately needed a squirt of Tabasco.
       I thought I was being unfair, so I checked out the Defense Department Web site and discovered that every meal is supposed to include a small packet of hot pepper flakes (mine did not). Next, I found out that even the military admits that while revenge is a dish best served cold, humanitarian daily rations should be warmed.
       “The entrees may be eaten cold,” the Web site explained. “However, as is universally understood, the entrees generally are more desirable when heated.”
       It may be “universally understood” that hot food tastes better than cold food, but America’s humanitarian bombing of Afghanistan is anything but fully fathomed by the rest of the world.
       International food groups and rescue organizations complain that the 37,000 daily meals that are dropped on Afghanistan will do little to alleviate the malnutrition being suffered by 5 million people. The American military campaign, they say, has also disrupted the fine work that was being done—day in and day out—by groups like Oxfam, the World Food Program and Doctors without Borders.
       “These meals are nutritious for the average person, but these are malnourished people under severe stress,” said Samantha Heller, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. “A couple of good meals is just a Band-Aid—and not a particularly good one.”
       Heller made me feel bad about these gifts to the Afghan people, until I heard Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defend the airdrops the other day.
       “It is quite true that 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings,” he said. “On the other hand, if you were one of the starving people who got one of the rations, you’d be appreciative.”
       Turns out, Rumsfeld was right. The other day, a malnourished Afghan peasant named Rajaballi picked up a few of the dropped packets and, in his own way, pronounced the mission a success.
       “It is very delicious,” he told The New York Times. “This is the first time I have had a full stomach in a long time.”
       Apparently, he did not even complain about the lack of hot pepper.

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His website is at http://www.gersh.tv/
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.

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