Following the massive earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince last week, relief organizations have begun shipping canned goods such as Spam, tuna, evaporated milk, and baby formula to the Dominican Republic and the northern shores of Haiti. Do these donations pose a problem in a country where more than half of the population lives on less than $1 a day and lacks access to basic household supplies like can openers?
No. Major relief organizations say that a dearth of kitchen utensils wouldn't pose much of a problem at all when it comes to food aid. Since Haiti is predominantly an agricultural nation, there are plenty of machetes and small knives around for digging, harvesting crops, and preparing meals. Even before the earthquake, many residents of the island nation would have used their knives to pry open the lids of aluminum cans.
In any case, a shortage of can-openers wouldn't have been a catastrophe. Although thousands of communities across the United States have announced canned food drives in response to the earthquake, most professional relief organizations advocate monetary gifts instead. The U.N. World Food Program, one of the primary humanitarian agencies directing the distribution of emergency aid, has already provided Haitians with 1 million rations of food, none of which were canned. Cash donations for Haiti are used to purchase food in the country's unaffected regions or in the Dominican Republic, to minimize transport costs and stimulate the local economy. Purchased items include cans of vegetable oil with screw-top lids and large sacks of beans and rice, as well as jars of peanut butter, bags of granola, and tinned sardines with pull-tabs.
Over the last two decades, advances in nutritional science and food packaging have virtually eliminated the need for canned goods. The U.S. Air Force dropped hundreds of thousands of Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, and vitamin-fortified high-protein biscuits onto Haitian soil in the last week. These portable, single-portion meals come in vacuum-sealed pouches that can be opened by hand. Made of a flexible metal-plastic laminate—aluminum on the inside, synthetic polymer on the outside—these sturdy bags are lightweight, watertight, and keep food from spoiling for up to five years.
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