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Gleaning a Harvest for the Hungry 
Two hundred and ten million kilos of food are wasted in Toronto alone each year. A group of Ontario Christians have found a way to glean it, dry it into soup and send it overseas to feed the hungry.

Consumers in Canada have a lot of money, and they speak very loudly with their grocery dollar to express what they will buy and what they won’t buy in the store,” says Ontario farmer Don Almas. “They demand perfect-looking produce.”

As a result, each year over 210 million kilograms of food is wasted in Toronto alone, and an average of 90 tons of “imperfect” produce is tilled under on an annual basis. Meanwhile, a child dies overseas every 3.5 seconds due to hunger-related issues. In 2003, a group of Christians from the Hamilton and Cambridge areas were inspired to start a gleaning operation, enabling the vast amounts of wasted produce to be dried into soup that would, in turn, feed the hungry. Five years later, the Ontario Christian Gleaners started production, and as of today, more than three million servings of soup have been sent overseas.

“The market is overflowing,” says Plant Manager Shelley Stone. “There’s enough food in the world if we would only share.”

It all began when John Verbinnen, founder of the Ontario Christian Gleaners, read an article about the Okanagan Gleaners.

“I became very interested in it, because a good friend of mine has a farm, and I know the amount of waste that goes on,” recalls the 52-year-old owner of Verbinnen’s Nursery in rural Flamborough. After traveling out west to observe the gleaning operation for himself, “I felt the Holy Spirit working in my heart about starting one here.”

The concept just made sense, Verbinnen says. “The idea of dehydrating vegetables so they have longevity, and making them lightweight so it’s economical to ship; the fact that they hold 85 percent of their nutrients—it was a no-brainer. I thought, ‘Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?’”

Operating from a building just off Highway 8 south of Cambridge, the Gleaners consist of 150 volunteers from across south-western Ontario who take turns collecting, sorting, washing and trimming donated vegetables every morning, Monday to Friday.

The plant itself has three rooms, Stone explains: the warehouse with its cooler and drier; a processing room which has cutting boards, knives and a dicing machine, and the kitchen where volunteers rest over cups of coffee.

Following morning devotions, vegetables are wheeled out on skids to be washed and trimmed. Once blemishes are removed, the vegetables are tossed into a big bucket. The bucket then gets dumped into a dicing machine which chops everything into small, even cubes. The cubes are diced into large plastic bins which get rolled to the drier and shoveled onto a conveyor belt and into the drier-chute. Vegetables are evenly spread out onto a five-foot-wide stainless steel belt. Up to 4,000 pounds of produce are dried at once, taking seven to eight hours.

Once enough vegetables have been diced and dried, the plant shifts gears for a week and focuses on mixing and bagging the produce along with protein of some sort—barley, beans or lentils.

Protein, Stone admits, is a very big need. “We wouldn’t say no to a donation of dried onions either,” quips the mother of two teenagers.

After sealing the three-pound bags shut with a ‘heat seal,’ they are then packed into barrels or pails to be shipped out by various organizations including Samaritan’s Purse, Feed the Children (FTC) Canada, and the Mennonite Central Committee, among others.

Despite having just opened in 2008, Stone says they have already undergone some major changes—“the most significant being the transfer from drying on trays to our belt-style dryer.” She also remarks on the steady increase in volunteers, one of whom arrives by bicycle from Elmira to assist with the produce.

“I am thankful for the opportunity to work at the Gleaners,” says Rebecca Penning who, together with her daughter Nadia, serves coffee to the other volunteers every Tuesday morning. “It opens my eyes to how plentiful we have it—reminding me again to be thankful for those undeserved blessings.”

While up to 15 churches are represented on any given day, “the smaller denominational differences go to the background,” says Stone, “and the main goal is, we’re feeding the hungry.”

It was for this reason she took the job back in the summer of 2008. “It’s everything I believe in, under one roof,” explains Stone, who’s also worked for Scott Mission and IVCF. “It’s about feeding the poor; it’s about people from all walks of life working together toward a common goal, and it’s about not letting good stuff be wasted.”

Gerry Verrips, a retired flower grower who attends the United Reformed Church in Sheffield, has been a regular volunteer since the operation opened. He sees working at the Gleaners as both a privilege and a responsibility. “I believe it is our duty of man to help each other whenever possible,” explains the 72-year-old.

While he doesn’t believe sending soup overseas is a total answer to world hunger (for which, he says, there’s no solution without Christ), Verrips appreciates knowing he can ease hunger pains, even temporarily.

One of the ways Verrips helps is by visiting the Toronto food terminal where shipments of produce arrive daily from as far away as Australia. “The terminal itself moves 975,000 tons of vegetables a year,” he says. “And they dump a lot of stuff, because things don’t always keep.”

Having obtained a permit which allows the Gleaners to assume discarded items, Verrips is able to drive away with truckloads of slightly bruised or off-colour vegetables to be trimmed and dried by the Gleaners. “It helps the terminal, because they would otherwise have to pay to dump it,” he relates, “and it helps us.”

Other produce is obtained from local grocery distribution centers. Stone recalls one particular center that donated 8,000 pounds of baby carrots which were too close to expiring to be sold. “The carrots arrived on five skids,” she recalls. “They had 90 skids in total.” It wasn’t possible to relieve the centre of all of its produce, so the rest was piled into a trash compacter and trucked away.

For this reason, Stone hopes for more gleaning locations. Her dream is to see them develop in the regions of Holland Marsh, St. Jacob’s, Leamington and Niagara. For now, however, theirs remains the only operation in eastern Canada.

Board member Jerry Bulthuis believes they’ll soon have to expand. “We have too much stuff,” says the 63-year-old accountant. Because of the generosity of 30-35 churches that have provided varying degrees of financial support, the organization has no outstanding fees. This allows them to continue giving, in order to feed the hungry.

“I think it’s a mandate that we have to help wherever we can,” says Bulthuis, who resides in Hamilton. “We have to help the people who don’t have enough to eat, because we’re all made in the image of God.”

As a member of the Canadian Christian Relief and Development Association (CCRDA), the Gleaners’ soup is in high demand by world relief organizations. Upon showing interest, an organization is required to apply; if the Gleaners approve shipping with them, they send out the requested amount. “If they report back to us and we feel it was adequately distributed, we ship with them again,” explains Stone. “We want to make sure it gets to its intended destination. We also want to make sure it enhances what the organization is already doing.”

For the most part, the dried soup mix is sent to Malawi, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Philippines, refugee camps in Ghana, and orphanages in Romania and Albania.

Stone recalls one missionary to Albania telling of a boy who would attend school in the morning, wolf down his bowl of soup then run away. When asked where he was going, he replied, “My sister is in the afternoon class, so if I hurry home, I can take off our pair of shoes and she can hurry back and have the afternoon soup.”

Stories like this reassure Stone and her loyal army of volunteers that, while soup is not a long-term solution, it’s helping. “There will always be tsunamis, earthquakes and droughts, where there is suddenly no food,” she says, “We want to help them get back on their feet, and then can we go to help the next group of people who are in need.”

Ultimately, says Verbinnen, it is about making God’s love known. “I give all the thanks and praise to the Lord for the way He’s provided for every step of this project. Our prayer is that He will use it to help people come to know Him.”

For more information, or to discuss ways that you can support the Ontario Christian Gleaners, including volunteer opportunities, please contact Shelley Stone at (519) 624-8245 or visit www.ontariogleaners.org.  

Emily Wierenga is an author based in Blyth, Ontario. Her book, Save My Children, is available through Castle Quay Books.





Originally published in Beacon, November/December 2009.

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