Maybe no one will mistake them for spicy seafood gumbo and other Cajun favorites of the Gulf Coast region, but the meals are “balanced and nutritious,” says Ana Correa, an American Red Cross spokesperson.
Dozens of private charities and groups are delivering hot meals to residents left homeless by the storm and flooding. Mobile food kitchen trucks are scouring the area to find survivors who may be running out of food.
The Red Cross is sheltering more than 159,000 people across 17 stages and, in coordination with the Southern Baptist Convention, has served more than 5.4 million hot meals and 5.5 million snacks since the storm hit on Aug. 29. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has delivered 80,000 pounds of food and infant formula.
For Katrina survivors, especially the elderly and those who may have been injured or were already suffering from illnesses, the biggest fear is dehydration or risk of infection from the water supply, says Miriam Pappo Klein, registered dietician with Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
“There are concerns about vitamin deficiencies, but, hopefully, that is a short term situation,” she says.
Beyond that, the nutritional needs of people living in a situation as stressful as a crowded shelter are not any different than normal, except for the injured who may require more calories to recover, says Pappo Klein.
From mashed potatoes to lasagna
A meal from the Red Cross typically consists of an entrée, a vegetable side dish and a fruit or dessert item, with a bread or starch and beverage. Specific menus vary from kitchen to kitchen based on the products available at each site, according to the Red Cross' Correa.
Menus and serving sizes were developed based on a 2,500 calorie per day need. The daily requirement for an average adult is 2,000 calories.
The Red Cross is also providing MREs and HeaterMeals, self-heating packaged meals that cook when water is poured over a heating pad. Some of the HeaterMeals include: mushroom gravy over beef with mashed potatoes, chicken and noodles in gravy and a vegetarian lasagna.
“Working with health professionals, the menus and standards have been developed to ensure that meals are balanced and nutritious, with a balance of protein and carbohydrates,” Correa wrote in an e-mail to MSNBC.com.
The same menu is generally served to adults and children.
Because of the hurricane, the federal government has reportedly asked Sopakco, a company that packages meals ready to eat for the military, to produce an additional 425,000 cases of MREs through early January.
The food in MREs is fully cooked and placed into vacuum-sealed bags. It can be eaten straight out of the bag, either heated or unheated.
Each ready-to-eat meal contains about 1,200 calories and includes an entrée or starch, crackers, cheese, beverages and a dessert or snack. Vegetarian menus are available, according to the Sopakco Web site.
“MREs are nutritionally adequate. They have to be; they’re feeding our forces,” says Pappo Klein, noting that MREs are served to the American troops in Iraq.
Are they tasty?
"No, but you need it, so you eat it,” she says.