Handle with care: Military care package art project illuminates diversity within the ranks

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Photos and stories of the care packages are printed on red, white and blue paper, creating an American flag.


Red Sox paraphernalia, King Cake, local newspapers, lobster toys, plantains and other treasures have filled care packages to armed service members overseas. Each package typically comes with something, often food, unique from the family or the region they are from.

That’s because cuisine conveys culture. That is Shelburne resident Odale Cress’ thesis in her latest art installment for her master’s degree in culinary diplomacy.

“Food is a language, cuisine is a dialect,” she explained.

“Food has so much meaning, so much of it is homemade,” she said, pointing to a cheese ball one family made for a Navy deep sea diver serving in Italy in 1983.

While many people receive care packages – college students, Peace Corp members – Cress wanted to focus on the military.

“It tells how diverse the population in the military is,” Cress said, pointing out the plantains in one photo, the Kentucky Fried Chicken container of cookies in another, and Thai snacks in another.

“It’s clever how people found ways to make these so personal,” she said pointing to a photo of candy and a bright pink stiletto heel that was sent to a firefighter and engineer for the U.S. Coast Guard based in Hawaii in 2000.

Cress served as a Russian and Spanish linguist for the U.S. Army from 1983 to 1984. She received care packages from her family in Colorado – hot sauce was her favorite thing to get in the mail. And she would in turn send family packages from where she was working. Her recreated package hangs on the wall – one she sent to her family from Italy filled with olives, pistachios and pizzelle cookies.

In her project, Cress recreates packages from her experience and from stories she heard along the way.

Each project doesn’t have a name attached, nor where the person was from.

“The military doesn’t care about your name,” Cress explained. “They care about your rank, what you did, where you served. And when you go home, they replace you with someone of the same skill set.”

With the current socio-political division in the U.S. regarding people from other cultures, Cress sees her project as an important gateway to help educate people.

“It’s important in this day in age to know who is serving,” she said. “Studying cultural diplomacy is helping to foster a cultural awareness and broadening the awareness through that.”

Cress has been traveling and helping to lead people to cultural awareness through food for the past 35 years. She hopes to continue traveling and growing the project. People can submit their stories to be added to the project. Cress will be traveling with her project around the country and to military bases abroad .

Her installation is currently hanging at the Burlington Lakeside Community Based Outpatient Clinic for veterans. She will be presenting on her project at the Shelburne Town Hall on March 7 at 7 p.m. More information about the project can be found at carepackagestoryproject.us.

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