Stateside kitchens have moved into overtime keeping up with the hungry mouths of nearly 300,000 military men and women deployed around the world for a possible war with Iraq.

In Evansville, one of the Defense Department's three contract sites for prepackaged meals, called Meal Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, the contractor has been making about 350,000 cases per month, a jump from 90,000. Ameriqual Foods Inc. has doubled its workforce from 425 to 850 to meet the demand.

"Some of the buildup started after the operations in Afghanistan. Even more so recently," said Tim Brauer, the company's chief operating officer. "We're running all our production lines 24-7."

The meals in glossy tan packaging are durable; they have a shelf life of three years at room temperature, and in extreme desert heat, they last six months. During combat, meals are dropped by helicopter or parachute.

Jerry Darsch, director of the Defense Department's combat feeding program, would not say how many MREs are being produced in Evansville and at two other plants, in McAllen, Tex., and Mullins, S.C. But he said it is enough to feed every soldier in the field.

"No matter what the demand for MREs, our production base will always meet it," Darsch said. "They'll never go hungry."

Thai chicken, country captain chicken, beef teriyaki and pasta with vegetables are the current fare. Sloppy Joes, spicy vegetarian penne, and cheese and vegetable omelets will replace them in 2005. White chocolate raspberry cookies and peppermint Skittles will be added.

Army 1st Sgt. James Gamble, who still cringes when he recalls the packaged ham and chicken loaf dinners the Army served during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, said the fare today is much better than its tin can predecessors.

"It didn't taste like ham, and it didn't taste like chicken," said Gamble, who is part of the 101st Airborne Division. "If it doesn't taste like chicken, you know it's bad. Everything tastes like chicken."

Today, the mystery meats and no-name casseroles Gulf War fighters ate are gone. Complaints about the taste, and fears that soldiers would not eat food they disliked, prompted Pentagon officials to reevaluate the menus.

The number of selections has doubled, to 24. The offerings appeal to the modern palates with selections such as burritos and shrimp jambalaya. Treats, including M&Ms and Tootsie Rolls are also included.

The innovations and taste-testing are an attempt to entice soldiers to eat. Research shows soldiers in extreme fighting conditions can burn 6,000 calories a day and suffer from "stress-induced anorexia," during which they often refuse to eat.

Each MRE has about 1,300 calories and is Surgeon General-approved with sufficient nutrients to sustain a soldier for 21 days, though commanders in some situations might serve MREs longer, Darsch said.

Field tests with troops in Afghanistan confirmed that soldiers like the changes, Darsch said. The meals are waterproof and vermin-proof.

"The link between a high quality meal, mood, morale and ultimately performance is inextricably linked," Darsch said. "If they are well-fed, they'll think more clearly. They'll be able to perform their mission more effectively, and hopefully we'll get them out of harm's way and back home where they belong."

The troops now deployed have production workers, menu makers and taste testers in this Ohio River city to thank. Kitchen workers sample each batch of MREs for quality.

They understand their customers -- the soldiers who have nowhere else to turn for a hot meal and a taste of home.

"Our customers are on the front line of defense for the United State of America," Darsch said. "So I think it's even more important we give them the best quality."

Ameriqual Foods employee Susan Stratton places a sealed black bean burrito in a tray so it can move to the next step in the manufacturing of Meals Ready-to-Eat at the Evansville, Ind., plant.