Thousands can meat for the hungry

Mobile canner starts annual tour, setting a unique volunteer effort in motion

Nov 21, 2016 by and

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NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — As the forklift raised another pallet of canned meat to the ceiling on Nov. 3, volunteers in the Mennonite Central Committee Central States warehouse were already working on the next set of cans and boxes.

MCC’s mobile meat canner truck and trailer spent late October and early November at the facility, where dozens of volunteers worked their way through 80,000 pounds of chicken thighs — enough to fill much of the warehouse, or at least eight international shipping containers.

Volunteers clean cans of chicken meat before they are weighed and packed at the Mennonite Central Committee Central States warehouse in North Newton, Kan. — Tim Huber/MWR

Volunteers clean cans of chicken meat before they are weighed and packed at the Mennonite Central Committee Central States warehouse in North Newton, Kan. — Tim Huber/MWR

They and more than 30,000 other volunteers in the U.S. and Canada will process and preserve nearly 1 million pounds of meat for MCC in about 35 locations in the 2016-17 canning season. That is more than 450,000 pounds of chicken, 450,000 pounds of turkey, 40,000 pounds of pork and 20,000 pounds of beef.

This season’s volunteer canning crew includes Lucas Hie­bert of Goessel, Matthew Blosser of Goshen, Ind., and Claudio Regier and Carsten Wiebe, both of Neuland, Paraguay. The crew began Oct. 10 in Sterling, Ohio, before visiting sites in Kansas, after which they are working their way north.

“We try to miss harvest because a lot of our volunteers work in farming,” said canning coordinator John Hillegass as steam and conversation filled the warehouse air. “. . . Then we’ll go back south to Oklahoma to miss harvest there in December.”

Joey Graber is a corn, soybean and cattle farmer from Freeman, S.D., who has helped with canning for more than 20 years. He and other South Dakota volunteers anticipated canning at least 13,500 pounds of chicken Nov. 14-15.

Graber has been on the receiving end of these food shipments, too. From 1985 to 1987 he volunteered with MCC in Haiti, where he saw food shipments arrive. On learning tours to Nicaragua and Honduras, Graber saw these donations effectively meet the basic needs of impoverished, hungry people.

“That’s why I do it. I know how beneficial it is,” he said. “It’s just as important to be on this side of it as it is to be on the other side distributing.”

The meat is distributed in Haiti, Ethiopia, Ukraine and other places where protein sources are difficult to purchase locally. In North Korea meat is distributed through an MCC partner, Christian Friends of Korea.

Sharing locally, too

While the vast majority of meat is shipped overseas, 10 percent of the meat canned in MCC’s Central States region can be distributed to local organizations.

In 2016, MCC Central States distributed more than 4,000 cans of meat to organizations.

“We can distribute quite a bit of meat locally, and we’re here to share locally as well as globally,” said warehouse manager Duane Unruh. “Some organizations distribute the cans to individuals, and some use the meat to cook meals for homeless shelters or soup kitchens.”

One such organization is Cross-Lines in Kansas City, Kan., a partner organization of Rainbow Mennonite Church. Since 1968, Rainbow Mennonite has been in charge of the grocery store portion of Cross-Lines’ Christmas Store. Annually, more than 500 low-income families pay a nominal dignity fee to do their holiday shopping there.

“Families can shop for clothing, toys, bikes and food — everything they need to have a nice holiday,” said longtime volunteer Annie Jones, a member of Rainbow Mennonite. “. . . Sometimes new families are confused when they see the cans of meat from MCC, so we provide recipes in Spanish and English to give them ideas of how to use the meat. They are very happy to have that protein for their children.”

This year, the canner will stop in Winkler, Man., as well as its regular stops in the central and eastern U.S. and Ontario.

“We’re just so thankful for all the volunteers we have here and everywhere else,” Hillegass said.

The meat canner’s itinerary is online at

Mennonite Central Committee contributed to this report.

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