The recommended calorie intake according to the USDA for a moderately active 20-year-old male is 2800 calories; for a female it is 2200 calories. In 1975 the United States Military adopted the “Department of Defense Combat Ration”, more commonly known as the MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat). Production was tested in 1978, and the first rations were delivered in 1981. Each MRE provides an average of 1250 calories made up of 13% protein, 36% fat, and 51% carbohydrates. This equates to 1/3rd of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance.
Each MRE contains:
- Side Dish
- A Flameless Ration Heater
The civilian demand for MREs has really grown over the past 10-15 years. While there is technically no law prohibiting the sale of MREs by non-military personal, it has never been looked upon with a favorable eye by the United States Government. Following Y2K and Hurricane Katrina, manufacturing of civilian MREs has increased, with the main difference being the inclusion in civilian packages of the Flameless Ration Heater, along with a pack of gum, some candy, and occasionally hot sauce. There are five main companies that produce civilian MREs, Ameriqual, Sopacko, Wornick, Meal Kit Supply, and MREStar.
Examples of included foods from the 2013 menu are revealing and puzzling. “Asian Beef Strips”, “Mexican Style Chicken Stew”, “Jalapeno Pepperjack Beef Patty”, “Southwest Beef & Black Beans”, “Ratatouille” – very few of these dishes resemble their original models, but they are described as the very same. In the need for survival, where does pleasure enter in? What does the government deem necessary to include on the packaging? Is the government saying something about the inclusiveness or exclusiveness of our society in the way on which they describe the dishes? Why “Asian Beef Strips”, rather than just “Beef Strips?" Or is it simply a matter of a commercial appeal necessary to an increasingly consumer-oriented society, whether military or not.
Photography in this project attempts to not just create an inventory of MREs but to suggest what they reflect about our society. There is no direct criticism intended by these images. They are strictly an exploration of objects that people don't often see. In the course of this project I tasted each item. This was done for a few reasons. First, I did not want to waste seemingly good food. Second I wanted to understand why someone with civilian choices would resort to eating these. The side dishes were almost always good, packed with sugar and flavorings. The entrees were almost always inedible – chemically altered and preserved meat, prepackaged vegetables, a heavy seasoning, and anything else add that might achieve 1250 calories.
The arrangement of items in a visual grid does two things: it provides a literal and direct comparison among the MRE’s. It also tends to make the images lose their individuality and become more abstract. These items are pitched as different culinary experiences, but they have similar packaging, appearance, and ingredients. Can they actually deliver the distinct tastes and pleasures the titles would suggest?