The CARE package, a national icon after World War II, has come out of retirement -- retooled for the 21st century.

The cardboard boxes stuffed with lard, egg powder, canned meat and other food essentials were a critical part of U.S. humanitarian aid to war-ravaged Europeans in the 1940s. Similar boxes were part of the war against hunger in Korea, Vietnam and other nations. But in 1967, the official CARE packages ended.

Now the CARE package has been resurrected to mark its 65th anniversary. This time, however, it's a virtual package that funds modern tools to fight global poverty, such as education and health care.

"Instead of delivering food and supplies, we are providing aid that can last generations," said Sarah Moser, a spokeswoman for CARE, the Atlanta-based humanitarian aid agency that launched the packages in 1946.

"You can fund a girl's education in Afghanistan, or a small business run by a woman in Niger," she said.

For Minnesotans such as Gerhard Weiss, it's the revival of a powerful symbol of U.S. generosity. The food helped both his family and friends living in Berlin, which was in ruins after relentless aerial bombardment during the war.

"It was a lifesaver for so many people," said Weiss, 85, retired chairman of the German, Scandinavian and Dutch Department at the University of Minnesota.

"My parents and I got one or two boxes before we left [Berlin] in 1946. I also sent some CARE packages to friends from the United States.

"To this day, they remember with gratitude what I did for them."

The packages that Weiss received and sent were among more than 100 million that crossed borders over the years. No one could have imagined at the time that the term "CARE package" would become part of the national lexicon, applying to everything from homemade cookies sent to soldiers to comfy pajamas sent to college students.

It simply stood for the relief agency coordinating them, then called Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe and now called "Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere."

Rations and ruins

Weiss vividly remembers the original CARE packages. He was 18 years old and living with his parents. Food was rationed. He recalls eating "lots of potatoes," bread, an occasional egg.

One day he and his father walked to a Berlin relief agency and picked up a big cardboard box. Because his father was Jewish, they were among the first wave of families eligible to receive the food aid after the war.

They brought the box home, set it on the kitchen table, and eagerly opened the top.

"You'd get these treasures you hadn't seen in a long time," said Weiss, referring to the butter, canned meat, coffee and more.

The year after the war ended, Weiss' family was granted refugee status in the United States. Weiss was quickly drafted by the U.S. Army in 1946 and served in Japan for roughly a year. But he never forgot the packages, nor his former classmates still in Berlin. "We had all gone to hell and back," he said.

So with what little money he could save, he purchased CARE packages for some friends. They cost "something like $5 or $10," he said.

The packages apparently brought a smile to people's faces, and not just because of their content.

"The packages were marked 'gift,' which in German means 'poison,'" he said with a laugh.

Changing foreign aid

Fast forward to today, when humanitarian aid has shifted from simply donating food supplies to giving folks tools to fight hunger on their own. CARE packages that started rolling out last year allow buyers to fund projects in poor nations, focusing on education, maternal health and micro-financing for home-grown businesses.

"Food, when it's gone, it's gone," said Moser.

Click on the link at Care's website (, and find tools to battle the root causes of hunger and poverty. Donors can fill a virtual cardboard box with any number of gifts.

A $29 donation buys a school uniform: $49 can send a girl to school for a year: $170 will train a teacher, hopefully to educate hundreds. Likewise, $60 pays for water purification kits for 10 families; $46 funds vegetable gardening tools: $12 can provide mosquito netting for a family, to protect them from malaria and other insect-borne diseases.

The modern-day focus is on girls and women, said Moser. In fact, the CARE package was reintroduced on the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. CARE, like many international relief groups, found that women are often underutilized in poor nations. Tapping their potential helps both their families and communities.

Boys and men are helped, too, stressed Moser.

The CARE package is one way that CARE and other relief groups have evolved to fight global poverty. It relies heavily on social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, to raise money and awareness for global issues. It now funds more than 1,100 poverty-fighting projects in 84 countries, said Moser.

For Weiss, shifting strategies to fit the times makes sense.

"I think that's right," said Weiss. "The situations have changed, and CARE has changed with it."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511