A teenaged girl with hot pink hair and a white-haired gentleman are chatting and smiling, their hands a blur, coring and chopping tomatoes into a clean white bucket. Up ahead, a man scoops equal parts prepared tomatoes and potatoes into a machine that pulverizes them like a wood chipper. Other volunteers spread this mixture onto trays for the giant dehydrator.
At Fraser Valley Gleaners, Abbotsford, B.C., more than 55 volunteers a day turn rejected produce into a nourishing just-add-water soup mix that’s shipped to people in crisis around the world. In just one year, the Gleaners produce more than 10 million servings of soup that reach more than 40 countries.
Farmers, hot houses and supermarkets donate fresh or frozen vegetables with imperfections that North Americans no longer tolerate. Most produce is oddly shaped, discoloured or simply too big or too small.
It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement inspired by an Old Testament practice that mandated landowners leave part of their harvest for gleaners – the orphans, widows, migrants and poor.
“In a crisis, you’ll spend the whole day looking for food,” says Goosen of the recipients of Gleaners mixes. “It’s a vicious cycle. If you can relieve the food part, you suddenly have energy to grow your own food.”
Board member and long-serving volunteer Ann VanderMeulen adds, “You can’t preach the Word to people who are hungry. They have needs that have to be met.”
The Gleaners don’t sell their soup mix or pay for shipping. Instead, they give the soup labelled “In Christ’s Name” to reputable not-for-profits with a proven track record of getting food directly to the people who need it most. Mennonite Central Committee has distributed the soup mix through their work in North Korea, Bosnia and Jordan.
And this great gift is thanks to the Gleaners’s large and devoted volunteer base. With only three staff members, the Gleaners depends on 50–80 volunteers a day, five days a week.
“For many of our senior volunteers, their travelling days are over, but they can still make an impact internationally,” says Goosen.
Jack Weyh agrees. “This is a way I can show love for God’s people.” For the last eight years, Weyh has driven up from Lynden, Wash., with his friends to volunteer twice a week.
“We get so much more in return. It’s almost like we’re being fed,” he says, placing his hands on his heart. “God is using us to help people!”
Most volunteers are seniors. However, the Gleaners is seeing more interest from Canadian youth groups on mission trips. They camp at the Gleaners site, help in the morning, then volunteer in more urban settings in the afternoon.
Young people from Killarney Park MB Church, Vancouver, have volunteered at Gleaners during the summer for a number of years.
“It is one of our youth group’s highlights of the year,” says pastor Dave Chow. “They are a service-oriented group, and love to share with the work of their hands.”
“I love to see how much energy these kids have,” says Weyh. “We build each other up and learn about each other.”
Chow says his youth “love working alongside the seniors…forging new ties with others.”
“It’s an opportunity to do something meaningful in your life. It’s so great to give back a little of what the Lord gives us,” says VanderMeulen, adding the Gleaners is a comfortable place where people can ask questions about Christianity.
“We purposefully leave denomination at the door. It’s scriptural to take care of some of the physical needs before the spiritual needs,” Goosen says. “And we share this belief. We give in Christ’s name.”
Currently, the Gleaners are looking for donations of pulses like peas, lentils and beans to boost the protein content of their soups. Oct. 3–4, 2014, Fraser Valley Gleaners will host fundraising banquets at Eben-Ezer Church, Abbotsford, B.C.
Heather Pauls Murray is a wedding harpist living in Chilliwack, B.C., with her husband and two small children. She attends Sardis Community Church.