Meadville Tribune

February 6, 2013

Amish, Mennonite help can turkey to feed world hungry

By Konstantine Fekos

SPARTANSBURG — As the smell of raw turkey wafts into Valley View Mennonite Church, dozens of Amish and Mennonite volunteers snap on sanitary gloves and ready their “can-do” attitudes to clean, grind and prepare canned food for the world’s hungry.

For upwards of 38 years, members of the Spartansburg Mennonite community have organized their local meat-canning stop on the Mennonite Central Committee’s (MCC) interstate relief tour, designed to focus a combined Christian effort on producing thousands of food cans to send to war-torn, refugee-laden and poverty-stricken nations.

“We’re fortunate in the U.S., but refugees and people in other countries don’t have the types of social service agencies we have here,” said long-time volunteer Albert Brenner, who traced his days canning for the internationally impoverished back to the 1960s.

“The idea of not knowing where our next meal’s going to come from is a feeling so foreign to us,” he added. “If I didn’t have the means to feed my children and grandchildren, I’d do all I can, but there are situations (overseas) where there’s nothing you can do.”

Among the numerous assembly lines segmented to expedite the three-day canning process, which concludes today, Brenner finds himself in an organizational role, making sure the MCC’s traveling self-contained mobile cannery is hooked up and sealed on the church loading dock and transporting turkey from the truck to the grinder and back to the truck for canning.

“It’s a process of setting up to make everything flow,” said Susan Bell, event facilitator, who canned and supervised with Brenner for several decades. “It’s our favorite mission project.”

Under U.S. Department of Agriculture supervision, volunteers from Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York work various hours according to their availability, starting as early as 5:30 a.m. and ending as late as 1 a.m.

One-ton bins, containing 40-pound bags of skinless, boneless turkey thighs are unloaded into the church where volunteers move more than 100 pounds at a time via wheelbarrow to the meat grinder.

“The meat comes from Virgnina Growers, which is a poultry co-op in Hinton, Va.,” said Bell, who reported a starting amount of 29,000 pounds.

Ground turkey is then hauled up a ramp to the mobile cannery where 12 to 14 volunteers dump the turkey in vats, pouring in salt and churning the mixture with large paddles before stuffing over a pound of chunked turkey, stewing in its own juice, into hundreds of cans.

“It’s all raw coming in,” said Bell. “Then it’s pressure-cooked after it’s canned and brought back inside for cleaning, labeling and packing.”

The mobile canner’s pressure cookers are fired up at the start of each shift and keep blowing clouds of steam until midnight.

Those who are canning by hand are often left in a thick haze until the adjacent door is opened for more incoming meat.

Boxes marked “Food for Relief” are stacked six high near the loading dock, currently housing more than 7,300 cans, each weighing over a pound.

“Turkey’s a lot nicer product to can,” Brenner said. “There’s no fat, no waste and it’s a very tasty, nutritious product.”

Up until a few years ago, MCC and its local affiliates used to can beef, getting only 75 to 80 percent yield per pound as opposed to a current 95 percent yield from boneless, skinless turkey, according to Bell.

“That’s one good reason to do turkey,” she said. “Turkey’s received anywhere.”

While all MCC canned products undergo USDA inspection and approval, international beef shipments were suspect to any overseas bans on imported meats.

More often, however, MCC and even Valley View would receive overseas praise.

“We’ve gotten letters from Bosnia, Serbia and North Korea hospitals and orphanages expressing their thanks,” Bell said. “Even if you’re homeless in this country, there are resources and agencies that are willing to meet you halfway. This project feeds people in places where there are no other resources.”

“A few years ago, we got a letter from Russia,” Brenner said. “We had to get it interpreted, but it (expressed) appreciation for our efforts.”

Valley View’s combined volunteer effort is expected to have its full shipment heading to MCC Headquarters in Akron by tonight.

“If each can can bring hope to an individual, it’s worth it,” Brenner said.

The MCC mobile cannery makes eight-month trips each year, visiting canning operation sites in more than 12 states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Nebraska, Kansas and Iowa, reaching as far north as Ontario, Canada.

Bell invites members of the public to visit the Valley View Mennonite Church, 24313 Route 89, Spartansburg, and make a contribution to the canning effort. Anyone interested may call the church at (814) 654-7732.

MCC meat shipments benefit countries in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. More than 389,000 cans were shipped in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

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Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at