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Why FEMA sent 'junk food' to Puerto Rican hurricane survivors

By Caitlin Dewey

October 24, 2017 at 11:26 AM

Residents of San Ysidro, Puerto Rico, wait to receive food and water, provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a neighborhood without grid electricity or running water. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Cheez-It crackers. Beef jerky. Shelf-stable “tuna chunks.”

It may sound like the contents of a college vending machine, but these are actually among the foods that thousands of Puerto Ricans have been living on for the past month.

Panned by San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, the Federal Emergency Management Agency rations have been the subject of frequent criticism and social media rage since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in late September.

In a public appearance on Friday, she rifled through a federal shipment of chocolate pudding and other snack foods before throwing the box aside as if disgusted.

Related: [San Juan’s mayor says her life is inside out, but she’s working to right Puerto Rico while taking on Trump]

The snacks have also earned the derision of many on social media, such as the sports journalist Josh Sánchez. On Oct. 12, he tweeted a picture — since retweeted more than 19,000 times — that shows an alleged FEMA food bag filled with Skittles and Vienna sausages.

But experts say that critics don’t understand how emergency food works. In an environment where most people still don’t have power or reliable communications, even “junk food” can — and frequently is — part of the solution.

“It’s a delicate dance,” said Jarrod Goentzel, the head of the Humanitarian Response Lab at MIT. “But it’s not as if they’re shipping in boatloads of candy.”

Watch more!
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz on Sept. 29 demanded more from the federal government in wake of Hurricane Maria devastation. (Municipio Autónomo de San Juan)

What exactly FEMA has shipped to Puerto Rico remains a matter of some confusion.

A month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, the agency is still engaged in a massive feeding operation with an overlapping patchwork of local agencies, private contractors and nongovernmental organizations.

Local leaders, tasked with distributing emergency food shipments, have opened and repacked aid boxes before handing them out — making it unclear which items came from FEMA and which came from the nearly 80 other relief organizations operating on the island.

Related: [A cry from Puerto Rico: 'In my life, I have never seen anything so mismanaged']

FEMA repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether it has distributed specific items, such as Skittles, that have become the subject of social media scorn. Instead, FEMA stressed that the agency and its partners are distributing more than 2 million meals per week on the island of 3.4 million people.

“To imply that there is something inappropriate about providing nutritional meals and snacks does not accurately depict the feeding mission currently being executed in Puerto Rico,” the agency said.

FEMA rations, typically supplied by agency contractors, include hot, prepared meals, shelf-stable “Meals-Ready-to-Eat” and grocery boxes filled with canned and boxed goods. The foods supplied in Puerto Rico are equivalent to those the agency has distributed in other disaster zones, and it has used many of the same contractors as it did to source meals for survivors of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

According to current FEMA contractors and contract solicitations, all of the agency's meals comply with strict nutritional standards. One recent FEMA posting sought food contractors to make thousands of sandwich lunches at 800 calories or less.

Another solicitation sought a supplier for tens of thousands of cans of bulk ground beef, boneless chicken, carrots, beans and corn for its hot-meal operations — plus rice, peanut butter, canned fruits, adobo seasoning and crackers.

“We have found [FEMA] to be very stringent,” said Barry Sendel, the founder and president of Chef Minute Meals, a major supplier of low-calorie and low-sodium MREs. “They analyzed our nutrition content, our ability to ramp up manufacturing, our quality — we had to bid three times to get the contract. They do a thorough job vetting.”

Still, there’s the matter of the Cheez-Its and the beef jerky. Some observers have questioned whether such foods are appropriate, or sufficient, in a post-disaster setting.

But experts say that, in moderation and over the short-term, these foods provide both calories and a much-needed sense of normalcy. After all, most Americans do regularly consume packaged snack foods: $44.3 billion's worth in 2015, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.

Familiar foods are more palatable to recipients and easier to source, explained Iain Logan, the co-founder of the consulting firm Global Emergency Group.

They’re also a comfort, said Jeff Nene, the spokesman for the humanitarian group Convoy of Hope, which has distributed some Little Debbie cakes alongside much larger shipments of rice and dehydrated vegetables.

“There are two different ways to look at it: The critical way and the realistic way,” Nene said. “When I look at myself, I try to eat a balanced diet — but throughout the day, I also snack. It makes sense to me that when you give food to people, you model that same balance.”

Ultimately, Nene and others stress, no one intends disaster survivors to eat snack foods as meals, or to eat them over the long-term.

Watch more!
The Puerto Rico National Guard distributed thousands of gallons of water in Morovis on Oct. 17. The distribution is one of several throughout the country since Hurricane Maria. (Puerto Rico National Guard)

Already, FEMA is transitioning away from shelf-stable meals, such as MREs and “snack packs,” toward grocery boxes and hot foods.

The agency is also helping grocery stores restock so that Puerto Ricans can choose foods for themselves. While almost 90 percent of the island’s supermarkets are open, according to the Government of Puerto Rico, most of the island still lacks power, and some stores have struggled to stock their shelves.

For Logan, the humanitarian consultant, that issue looms far larger than the question of FEMA’s taste in snacks.

“It’s important to think about what’s a good solution for the short-term, nutritionally,” he said. “But food distribution is something you do as a stopgap for the least amount of time possible … until you can get things back up and running again.”

Read more:

After Maria, José Andrés and his team have prepared more hot meals in Puerto Rico than the Red Cross

Three weeks since Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico still dark, thirsty and frustrated

20 million people are at risk of starvation. Here's how it got so bad.


Caitlin Dewey is the food policy writer for Wonkblog. Subscribe to her daily newsletter: tinyletter.com/cdewey.

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