ARLINGTON, Va. - Remember the lunch box you took to school? Remember its
tasty contents, neatly packaged in one colorful tin container?
Remember your lunch box sending plumes of steam roiling over the playground?
OK, maybe not.
That steaming parcel would be a new "group lunch box" under development by
the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Soldier
Systems Center in Natick, Mass.
The box is actually a carton packed with food, condiments and serving ware.
Built-in heaters warm the food without stirring or supervision, "so soldiers
can go off and do other things and come back to a hot meal," according to Peter
Lavigne, a chemical engineer on the Equipment and Energy Team.
The "Remote Unit Self Heating Meal" or "kitchen in a carton," as its
developers call it, is designed to be used by small groups of soldiers on
patrol, or performing other missions that take them far from their unit's field
kitchen, Lavigne said in a Monday telephone interview.
The food carton eliminates the need for soldiers to carry MREs, "reduces
weight and waste, and takes the [food] load off soldiers' backs and puts it in
the back of a truck," Lavigne said.
The new meal also satisfies the very human desire to gather together for
meals in groups, Lavigne said.
"Hot, cook-prepared meals … are a motivator and a morale thing, as opposed to
going off and eating out of individual pouches," he said.
The current instruction sheet for the cartons is almost comically simple.
Along with a few cautions that include not to drink the heating water and that
contents are "hot!" after heating, there is all of one step for soldiers to
take: "Pull activator tab to release water to heaters."
Thus begins the chemical reaction that generates heat and steam. Thirty to 45
minutes later, voila — a hot entree, vegetable, starch, and dessert.
As for the steam — well, the engineers are working to reduce that, Lavigne
said, both to reduce visibility and to improve heat management.
"I'd like to cut [the steam] in half," he said. "We want to condense a lot of
the steam inside the package, before it escapes."
The first soldiers to field-test the cartons — 35 Rangers at Fort Lewis,
Wash., during two days in December — loved the simplicity, Lavigne said.
"The first time, they all sat around reading the directions," Lavigne said.
"By the second time, it was, 'Pull the tab, dummy.'"
But "the biggest thing they liked about it was that they didn't have to worry
about cleaning up and sanitizing everything" after the meal, Lavigne said.
"They just put all the leftovers back in the carton and tossed it."
Although the technology that goes into the cartons is pretty well
established, the meals won't be fielded until 2006, Lavigne said.
That's because several questions aren't settled yet, including the optimal
number of servicemembers the box should feed (between 12 and 18); and whether
the box should include the activation water, and so be totally self-contained,
or have users add it separately, cutting down on weight.
Natick food specialists are also busy designing menus for the cartons that
are likely to include new and improved breakfast foods — in particular,
better-tasting eggs, Lavigne said.
The next step for the cartons "is a much longer field trial," with at least
100 soldiers, which will take place this spring, probably with the 3rd Infantry
Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., Lavigne said.
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