Alarm bells went off last week when a major Jewish organization learned that the Pentagon had awarded a contract for halal field rations for Muslim soldiers but had not even solicited bids for kosher field rations.
In a letter to Maj. Gen. Donald Rutherford, chief chaplain of the Army, Rabbi Abba Cohen, a vice president of Agudath Israel, wrote that “no kosher MRE’s [field rations known as Meals Ready to Eat] are being produced and, as previous stock has become depleted, there is essentially nothing available for Jewish members of the Armed Forces who require rations that meet their religious dietary needs.”
Rabbi Cohen said that when he first inquired about the issue, he was told that kosher MREs would continue to be made and that a solicitation for bids would be issued in coming weeks. But when he asked why a solicitation last April for kosher MREs had been withdrawn, “they told me they couldn’t tell me because of agency confidentiality.”
But late Tuesday after both The Jewish Week and the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council also began asking questions, Rabbi Cohen said he received a phone call from Brig. Gen. Steven Shapiro, the Defense Logistics Support commander, who told him a solicitation for kosher MREs was being made to food manufacturers that very day.
“He said there would be a four-to-six-week period and then a contract would be awarded,” Rabbi Cohen recalled. “We are very pleased by this expedited schedule. It shows they are sensitive to the concerns we raised.”
In the coming weeks, he said Shapiro told him, the military would be working with each of the applicants to make sure their product meets the military’s requirements for a kosher MRE.
“The testing and demonstration process is to be condensed a great deal,” Rabbi Cohen said. “They feel they have had enough experience with kosher food to be able to do that.”
Mary Anne Jackson, the president and founder of My Own Meals in Chicago, which has been making kosher MREs for the military since they were created in 1996, said she was not bidding on the new contract and questioned what observant Jewish soldiers would eat until kosher MREs are again produced.
“The last rations in theater had a best use date of January 14,” she said in an interview. “There are none out there now. And there are no reserves because they are not bought for reserve use but for current consumption.”
But Rabbi Cohen said Shapiro told him that there are some 2,000 kosher MREs now being stored in the United Arab Emirates and that “this is enough for that theater of operations.”
“When I asked about troops in the U.S. and elsewhere, he said that if there is a need the MREs would be taken from that supply,” he said.
Rabbi Cohen noted that his organization is “familiar with the kosher food industry, and if we could be helpful, we would be happy to be. … We are very pleased with the recent broadening of religious accommodation in the military and we have every reason to believe this issue is being addressed.”
Jan Channon of Chicago, whose 22-year-old son is now in the ROTC, told The Jewish Week that she was distressed to hear initial reports of a delay in procuring new kosher MREs.
“When my son entered the ROTC he was not promised kosher MREs, but he benefited greatly from them while in a basic training program in Washington State,” she said. “We have a kosher home and there was a chaplain who had reached out to my son [before basic training]. The chaplain knew he was Jewish and he told him that kosher MREs were available. My son said he was glad the chaplain had reached out to him. He told me that he has a colleague who is an Arab soldier and that he was getting halal meals.”
“If the army can support people’s religious observances, and if a company is able to provide the food, it should be done,” Channon added. “The fact that the military was willing to make the effort to provide kosher food had a huge impact on my son’s feelings about keeping the kosher diet.”
Shapiro said he is aware of the expiration date on the MRE’s, Rabbi Cohen said, but the MREs “sometimes can be extended” based upon the assessment of medical personnel.
“He said that if it can’t be extended, it would be thrown out,” Rabbi Cohen said, adding that he was pleased that Shapiro had addressed his concerns.
Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, one of the organizations that recruits, vets and endorses rabbis to serve as military chaplains, said his sources in the Defense Department told him that the amount of kosher MREs in the system would last months.
“They are assuring me that they are not going to run out of kosher food, period,” he said. “There are about 30 Jewish chaplains and about 100 Jewish lay leaders out there and if there was a shortage, they would be chattering about it. …. I do not believe there will be a systemic shortage in the field.”
Rabbi Sanford Dresin, director of military programs for the Aleph Institute, which also recruits, vets and endorses rabbis as chaplains for the military, said for observant Jews who are deployed in the field kosher MREs are crucial.
“For those who are downrange or in basic training, kosher MREs are a must because they can’t live on peanuts and tuna fish,” he said. “They need to have a high number of calories to provide the energy that soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines need.”
Rabbi Dresin said he was aware of the supply of aging kosher MREs that had been prepositioned in the Middle East, but he wondered why the Department of Defense waited so long to solicit for a new supply.
“Why did they order halal MREs and not kosher ones?” he asked.