Iowa Public Television

 

Mennonites Help Fight World Hunger

posted on November 23, 2007


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Market to Market is being taped on Wednesday this week so that our staff may enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. Most of those gatherings feature the traditional roast turkey. In fact, The National Turkey Federation reports 97 percent of Americans consume turkey on Thanksgiving. In 1920, U.S. turkey growers produced one turkey for every 29 Americans. Today they produce one bird for every man, woman and child in the country.

Amidst such abundance it may seem incomprehensible that many Americans are hungry. At the same time, anti-hunger groups say they see growing demand due to lost jobs, low wages and natural disasters. And with winter approaching, food pantry operators aren't optimistic.

But assistance is being offered by both the public and private sectors. As Laurel Bower Burgmaier discovered, a rural Mennonite church runs a canning operation that provides more than a million pounds of meat to hungry people in more than 20 countries.

Every winter, volunteers from the Mennonite and Amish communities of rural Southeast Iowa gather before sunrise at the Helmuth Repair shop, an implement dealer, to can thousands of pounds of turkey meat. In a tradition that dates back to the 40s, the Mennonite Central Committee, or MCC, here and around the country participate in an annual meat canning drive that runs from October through May. During its last canning season, the MCC provided more than 1 million pounds of meat to people in 21 countries, including Canada and the United States.

Vernon Ropp, Kalona, Iowa: "We were canning meat back through the 40s, 50s and 60s and due to the regulations, we sort of backed off and then we started again in 2000. And, this is our seventh year on it."

Vernon Ropp of Kalona, Iowa, remembers helping as a kid when the MCC started the meat canning drive just after World War II. Back then, the Mennonites would pack the meat in two-quart jars, wrap them in newspaper and put them in wooden barrels to ship. But, with a quarter of the jars breaking on trips overseas, they decided to switch to tin cans. Today, the portable meat canning unit is mounted on a flat-bed trailer, enclosed with fold-up sides. Ropp helped make his hometown one of the many stops for the operation's national tour.

The meat is a good source of protein for families impacted by war, disaster and poverty. Each can is able to feed five to 10 people. While beef and pork are canned at other sites, the Iowa group uses turkey thigh meat. The Iowans were concerned about countries not allowing beef because of the threat of mad cow disease, and turkey was easily accessible with West Liberty Foods, a poultry processing plant, nearby. Each canning site is responsible for raising funds to buy the meat and for covering the cost of operating the canner. Ropp says they raise money for the project by asking for donations from local Mennonite churches. While it often costs tens of thousands of dollars, money has never been a problem.

Vernon Ropp, Kalona, Iowa: "There's been a good response to it. We've always had enough money to cover all the expenses, maybe not right at the day, but soon after the meat canning. It's been excellent. It's been a good working relationship."

Mennonites place a strong theological emphasis on voluntary service. MCC provides disaster relief throughout the United States and around the world alongside their long-term international development programs. The canned turkey meat has been sent to those affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the U.S., as well as, many third-world countries. Ropp has visited some of these places, seeing first-hand how others live around the world and realizing just how many people are hungry.

Vernon Ropp, Kalona, Iowa: "We're wealthy in food. We have a lot of food here. It sort of hurts me when I see a lot of food being wasted. When you go to Honduras and El Salvador and some of the third world countries and you see people that are hungry and starving and somehow if we can get our food to these people to share with those that are in need. It's a biblical standard for the Mennonites to help those who are in need."

Each year, MCC seeks people to serve on the mobile meat canner. Canning crew members usually serve two-year terms spending seven months on the road. From October to May, the current four-member team will travel to 37 canning locations in 13 states and two Canadian provinces.

David Yoder, Chouteau, OK: "Some of the people are so happy to have two cans of meat. They say if they don't have the meat, sometimes my kids don't get nothing."

David Martins, Winkler, Manitoba, Canada: "They say they save it for the weekends because it's something special. They don't get meat like that every day. It's really, really cool."

Mennonites, for the most part, in Europe and North America are predominantly rural people, and the majority of the volunteers in Kalona live on farms. Volunteers start early in the morning, working four shifts with about 50 to 60 people in each. A representative from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is on site and inspects the entire process. First, large containers of meat are cut into chunks. The meat is then poured into a large vat where salt is added. Finally, the meat is packed into cans and cooked. Afterwards, volunteers hand wash, dry and label each can before it is placed in boxes for shipment.

Glen Guengerich, Wellman, IA: "I've been here every year on this job right here --putting the cans in the box. It goes to help people that need relief, hungry people. We all could work together to do something like that."

Sarah Miller, Kalona, IA: "We were in the Ukraine for two years and we saw this coming in. It was wonderful to watch the people. They had smiles on their faces and they got other things like clothes. They were glad for it. And, they were very glad for this meat."

The Pennsylvania-based MCC decides where the meat is needed most. Last year, volunteers helped fill more than 570,000 cans of turkey, beef and pork for hungry people throughout the world. While visiting families in Bosnia, Ropp says he was fortunate enough to discover a can of meat that he and the other volunteers in Kalona had made.

Vernon Ropp, Kalona, Iowa: "That morning, we went to a clothing distribution and they had bales of clothing in this warehouse and we were moving, loading a van and all at once, I seen boxed meat behind the clothing there and I seen our code, JJ and I dug out a box and pulled a can and I said that was canned January the 5th. I think it was the year of 2004, the second day and the second batch. I could tell by the code on it and the labeling on the cans...I knew it got there where it was needed.

At this year's meat canning drive in Kalona, Iowa volunteers processed 19,000 pounds of turkey, producing over 10,200 cans.

For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.

 


Tags: charity faith hunger Iowa Kalona Mennonites news poverty religion Thanksgiving