75 years later, spirit of CARE Packages also soothes those in U.S.
Credit: Laura Noel
Gabby Dirden, a CARE contractor, helps Walter Ballard collect food and water for his family during Bethel's Heavenly Hands food and water distribution in Houston, Texas, on Feb. 25, 2021. Hundreds of people received much needed food and water. The need was especially great following the snowstorms that disrupted power and water service to much of Houston. Bethel's Heavenly Hands is a CARE partner. (Courtesy of Laura Noel/CARE)
On a recent episode of the popular cooking show “Top Chef,” the contestants were surprised with a challenge to make dishes using ingredients from care packages sent by their families. The chefs, homesick and tired, were so touched by the packages that it brought many of them to tears.
What viewers may not have realized, however, is that the history of the cherished care package goes back three-quarters of a century. The term, which refers to food or essential items being sent to someone who needs support, stems from an important event that took place 75 years ago.
In May 1946, a relief agency called Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe delivered its first CARE Package to Le Havre, France, to provide emergency food for Europeans struggling in the aftermath of World War II. The mission has broadened globally ever since, and today the CARE name stands on its own, no longer an acronym. The nonprofit aid agency revived its CARE Package program last year to help Americans across the country, including in metro Atlanta, impacted by COVID-19.
Peter Molt, a retired German historian, was a teenager in Stuttgart when his family received CARE Packages in 1946. The original packages contained surplus U.S. Army rations and could feed a small family for 30 days, with items such as instant coffee, black tea, canned meat, pitted prunes, raisins, apple baby food and chocolate.
“It was very helpful because we were very hungry at that time,” Molt said. “It was very difficult to find enough food, and so the CARE parcels, with all these beautiful things like chocolate and so on, for us young people, it was a really marvelous thing.”
Seeing a country that was Germany’s enemy in the war later aid in their survival was a decisive moment in his young life, said Molt, who spent time studying in California and later served on the board of CARE Germany. The formative experience has stayed with him, even through strained international relations.
“I have experienced American society in a way which was very helpful,” Molt said. “I think CARE is also an example of international understanding and solidarity.”
CARE, which has been based in Atlanta since 1992, has been celebrating the momentous anniversary of the package with celebrity-studded virtual events that are equal parts reminiscent and future-facing. In a June 9 cook-off, chef Spike Mendelsohn used ingredients from the original package to make a canned ham paella with red eye aioli.
The main event, An Evening With CARE, was hosted May 11 by Whoopi Goldberg. It included performances from artists such as Jewel and Michelle Williams, and featured messages from former Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden.
Michelle Nunn, the nonprofit’s president and CEO since 2015, said the event was a fitting tribute to a 75-year legacy of volunteers, staff and participants standing together for social justice.
“The opportunity to bring together five living presidents in combination with Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Merkel, and Elton John, and an amazing choir of nurses who’ve served the communities around this country throughout the COVID pandemic, and for them to celebrate in a really powerful and I think joyful and resilient way, all of that put together was a kind of extraordinary package,” Nunn said.
Alongside major public figures, the event also broadcast the story of Tyehesha Alexander, a Griffin-Spalding County School teacher who was temporarily laid off due to the pandemic last spring. During that time, Alexander was hired to deliver CARE Packages through a partnership with Community Outreach in Action, a Jonesboro food pantry where she has long volunteered. The packages generally contain nonperishable items, bread, desserts, and different types of meat, such as chicken, pork and beef, Alexander said.
“I enjoy working with CARE because it gives me the opportunity to help those in the community. You never realize how many people are actually in need,” Alexander said in an interview. “There are a lot of people that don’t have cars that are not able to drive themselves to the grocery store. You have a lot of elderly people that are on fixed incomes.”
In response to COVID-19, CARE launched the largest U.S.-focused effort in its history. The need and urgency were so great, Nunn said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,that they quickly put together a strategy for responding.
“We have seen that poverty has been cut in half globally while it has stayed really persistently sort of stagnated at the level of the United States,” Nunn said. The high poverty rate combined with the COVID crisis, which resulted in job losses and food insecurity for many Americans, brought a focus of the organization’s work stateside.
That plan included reincarnating the idea of the CARE Package — which had evolved over the years from a physical box of food into more of a focus on providing resources through tools and training — and delivering them to residents in Atlanta; Louisville, Kentucky; Akron, Ohio; Houston; Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The package contents vary, but may include items such as apples, peanut butter, cereal or a microwaveable meal.
“It was simply the idea that there were a lot of people that needed meals and were hungry, that couldn’t leave their house, that were isolated and there were also other people that were out of work,” Nunn said. “And so what if we partnered with gig economy platforms like Lyft and TaskRabbit, helped employ people to deliver meals to those who were in need?”
During the May 11 virtual event, Biden announced that 6 million packages had been delivered in this country in about a year. CARE plans to extend programming in current markets and expand to other priority cities like Chicago, Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia and Newark, New Jersey, in the next two years.
Bringing the package home “very much embodies the best of the CARE story, which is so much around reciprocity, around passing it on, and then how that flows back,” said Nunn, who was a 2014 Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Georgia.
As the agency grows its U.S. footprint and impact, Atlanta will be a signature city for programming initiatives. In late 2019, CARE launched the Community Savings & Loan Associations pilot in Atlanta to help people in need save more and reduce their dependence on payday loans. To scale the program, CARE recently signed an agreement with AmeriCorps/VISTA to place VISTA volunteers with local partners in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston and Louisville to work with savings groups.
Due to the urgency of the COVID crisis, it’s hard for Nunn to imagine what CARE’s role will be over the next 75 years. Vanquishing the threat is top of mind; in recent months, she’s expressed concerns about how the last-mile delivery of vaccines is failing and the importance of equitable vaccine delivery around the world in op-eds in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Hill.
Credit: Ammar Al-Hajj/CARE
Credit: Ammar Al-Hajj/CARE
“I’m incredibly passionate and dedicated to our mission to defeat poverty and to save lives and to achieve social justice focusing on gender justice and gender equality,” Nunn said. “And I’m so privileged to have the opportunity to work in solidarity with thousands of team members from around the world, and to do it from my hometown, and my beloved community of Atlanta.”
How CARE Packages have evolved
The original CARE Packages in 1946 included items such as instant coffee, black tea, canned meat, pitted prunes, raisins, apple baby food and chocolate. In recent decades, the packages evolved from a physical box of food into more of a focus on providing resources through tools and training. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the packages were reincarnated in 2020 and delivered for the first time in the United States. Those packages may contain apples, peanut butter, cereal, a microwaveable meal, nonperishable items, bread, desserts, and different types of meat, such as chicken, pork and beef.