When families in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico asked for food, a Georgia company answered the call with candy bars.
Baby Ruths, to be exact. Also fruity Airheads candies. Cheez-Its and pop-top tins of barbecue flavored potted meat came on the side.
Photos of this box of disaster relief food — labeled as “meal modules” — went viral on Twitter in recent days, igniting outrage among thousands who are already angry over the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to Hurricane Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico Sept. 20.
Government contractor LongBranch Partners, LLC, which is stamped in red on the box with a location in Ellijay, 80 miles north of Atlanta, has been subject to particular scorn.
Pedro Lugo, 32, of San Juan, said he received the sweet and salty snacks Thursday as part of the first food aid his apartment complex has received from FEMA since Maria struck. The assistant librarian lives across the street from a FEMA headquarters and saw workers in FEMA T-shirts deliver the boxes, he said.
“How can people pass this off as nutritious?” said Lugo.
FEMA spokesperson Ron Roth said in a written statement that the box’s contents are a “snack pack” and not meant to replace a full meal. “Meal module” is LongBranch’s terminology, not FEMA’s, he said.
“We have cancelled future orders for these packs and the remaining inventory will be distributed to the portion of the survivor population that can use the snacks effectively,” Roth said.
Details on what LongBranch was paid to provide the food were not immediately available, Roth said.
Company’s prior owner mistakenly targeted
Repeated attempts to reach LongBranch’s owner by telephone and through his company’s registered agent were unsuccessful. The company is listed in an online database as a U.S. Department of Defense contractor that has received millions of dollars to provide supplies such as food and tarps.
The box of mostly junk food touched a raw nerve with Puerto Ricans who complain that they are being treated as second-class citizens in the aftermath of Maria. Power outages continue and some grocery store shelves remain bare.
Food aid is a recurring source of frustration. During an Oct. 24 public appearance, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz rummaged through chocolate pudding packages in a box of FEMA rations and tossed it away in apparent disgust, according to a Washington Post report.
Twitter users retweeted one photo of Lugo’s relief food 12,000 times. One mistakenly posted a purported phone number for LongBranch’s owner that actually belongs to Steve Pigott, a Canton man who said he sold the company in 2005 and has never been a part of the company’s government contracts for disaster relief. Callers have harassed him repeatedly.
“They say, ‘How can you send something so bad to Puerto Rico?’ It’s very nasty stuff,” Pigott said. “When I’ve explained what happened, they’re sympathetic and apologetic.”
State business filings list the company’s member as Jeff Fudge, whose address is a Florida post office box. Its registered agent — the official who receives legal filings and communication for the company — is located in the Atlanta area.
‘Insulting and a little degrading’
FEMA food contracts call for meals that provide starch, vegetables, and protein and total more than 700 calories, Roth said. They are supposed to be “culturally appropriate” for Puerto Rico and include utensils. The label on Lugo’s box said it contained 12 servings each of entrees, starches, fruits and deserts, according to a photo.
“The Cheez-Its, I think, is the starch. Maybe the nuts in the Baby Ruth count as protein or something,” Lugo said. “For someone who doesn’t have anything eat, that would be very offensive.”
Disaster experts have said in media reports that in the short term, candy bars and other non-perishable junk food can be an important source of nutrition because they have wide appeal and are easy to get.
But these experts don’t have to eat this food, said Gabriela Maraver, 26. A box she received included a can of Hormel corned beef hash, Cheez-Its, three packets of Saltines, a Rice Krispies treat and a packet of Texas Pete hot sauce. She does not know whether her box came from a nonprofit or U.S. contractor, but a post from a Facebook user that she provided showed other food aid boxes from LongBranch falling apart in the sun.
“It was just kind of insulting and a little degrading,” said Maraver through a cell phone she charged with a solar panel.
Her power has been out since Hurricane Irma, which blew past Puerto Rico in early September.
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