Aid in Small Boxes

In 1996, commemorating 50 years of relief work, CARE gave the Smithsonian its own package

A CARE Package shipped in 1948
A CARE Package shipped in 1948 Wikimedia Commons

One day during the two-year, post-World War II captivity of Klaus Pütter, a German POW-soldier in a French hospital, a plain, brown, 22-pound cardboard box arrived—a gift from Care (an acronym for Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe), containing about 40,000 calories from Germany’s recent enemy, the United States.

It held corned beef, bacon, liver loaf, margarine, lard, apricot preserves, honey, raisins, chocolate, sugar, egg powder, milk powder, coffee, flour and soap.

"Even though hunger and desperation were with us, our first reaction was, ‘What’s the snag? What do the Americans want to do to us now?’" Pütter says.

Never getting enough to eat—daily, only a piece of bread, cheese, cabbage soup and tea ("Never enough, believe me," Pütter says)—the German prisoners nevertheless debated three days about what to do with the box.

Finally, the German Army chaplain concluded, "Americans are different. They help people in need, regardless of who and where they are."

Celebrating CARE’s 50th anniversary in 1996, the organization presented the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History with a 1962 cardboard CARE package. It contains boxes of macaroni, cornmeal, instant chocolate-flavored drink mix and nonfat dried milk.

CARE, one of the largest nonsectarian, nongovernment organizations in the world working in international development and relief, started an emergency food relief program in 1946, just after the end of World War II. During the Berlin Airlift beginning in 1948, Americans purchased and sent $10 packages containing food, clothing and medicine to West Berlin in one of the largest person-to-person relief efforts in history.

Berliners looked to the sky for help after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered a shutdown of ground traffic to and from their city of a couple of million residents. From 1946 to 1949, CARE delivered more than 658,000 packages there, including 200,000 during the airlift.

The first packages’ contents came from surplus Army rations, which the United States had stored for the invasion of Japan. When Europeans depleted those rations, CARE began sending packages it designed for civilian families, containing more meats and more fats. Criticism soon followed.

The French groused that the contents did not lend themselves to the French cuisine. The Irish insisted on a substitute for the meat products. The British wanted fruit juices and extra fats instead of flour, which was not in short supply.

So CARE began customizing. People could then send Asian packages (with beans, miso and soybean oil), kosher (food sanctioned by Jewish law), and Italian and Greek (with spaghetti and assorted spices). Baby and infant packages were available, as was even a holiday package with a turkey in a can. CARE developed an enviable reputation for reputable delivery. Methods have included reindeer in Finland, camels in Pakistan and elephants in Sri Lanka, as well as more orthodox vehicles.

In the late 1940s CARE introduced packages with tool kits and sewing machines to help people earn incomes and become self-sufficient. In the 1950s CARE sent farm tools to Europe and Asia. It also sent medical equipment and books to many developing countries. In 1966 CARE began phasing out its by then famous packages, although it revives the tradition sometimes, as it did in Bosnia in the 1990s.

In the 1970s CARE helped communities build wells and improve sanitation. In the 1980s it launched primary health care programs, such as oral rehydration therapy for diarrhea victims. Beginning in 1990, CARE has provided family planning services in almost 300 clinics.

Since 1998 CARE has provided shelter and repair materials, helped farmers restore their fields to productivity and assisted with mine awareness and removal programs in Kosovo. CARE managed eight refugee camps in Macedonia, housing 100,000 refugees. It has distributed 80,000 blankets, 40,000 mattresses, 11,000 plastic sheets, 1,000 stoves and 6,500 kitchen sets.

Most recently, CARE has changed its name to Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere and no longer draws only from its American roots. Nine other industrialized countries have founded CAREs under the confederation of CARE International, a global movement reaching 68 developing countries.

Criteria for determining CARE’s presence in countries include per capita gross national product, infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births, death rate of children between ages 1 and 4, life expectancy at birth, nutrition status of vulnerable groups, percentage of population with access to safe water, and literacy and unemployment rates. The term "CARE Package" is a registered trademark, and the organization frowns on its corporate use. However, CARE packages have become a cultural icon, a symbol of generosity worldwide, and a part of the American vernacular. College students receive "care packages" from home during exams, and children at camps dive into "care packages" of brownies their moms have sent.

A 1962 note accompanying the Smithsonian’s package sums it up well: "It is the hope of all Americans everywhere that our efforts of sharing our bountiful food supply will be an encouragement to free people all over the world."

by Carolyn Hughes Crowley

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