Unwanted veggies become food aid

MEDICINE HAT, Alta. — Walter Lietz knows about hunger.

As a six-year-old living in Berlin after the Second World War, his daily food consisted of one slice of bread and a small bowl of soup.

“When I saw that meal coming, I screamed murder because the hunger was so great. And then my mother gave me half of hers,” Lietz said.

Now he and many other volunteers make soup mixes for other hungry people in the world through Prairie Gleaners, a non-denominational Christian organization that operates in the County of Cypress near Medicine Hat.

The volunteers at Prairie Gleaners wash and chop donated vegetables, most of which don’t meet market standards in terms of appearance. They are then dried, packaged and shipped to people in need.

The organization operates from a former meat processing plant west of the city. Plant manager Ken Martens estimates it ships two to three million meals per year.

It costs the group five cents to produce a meal, Martens said during a Feb. 20 tour of the plant.

Prairie Gleaners began operating in 2009, and the people of Haiti were among some of the early recipients after that country’s devastating earthquake in 2010.

People affected by floods in the Philippines also received a shipping container of soup mix, which constitutes about 625,000 meals. Varying amounts have also been sent to people in at least 14 other countries.

Shipments from this plant, using vegetables and pulses from southern Alberta producers, went to Ethiopia, Albania, Cambodia, Romania and Mexico last year.

Statistics from 2013 show the Gleaners received 160,000 kilograms of vegetables, from which it produced an average 15,000 meals per day of operation. The facility runs four mornings a week, Wednesday to Saturday.

This year’s goal is to fill four shipping containers with bagged product, an equivalent of 2.5 million meals.

Martens praises the generosity of local vegetable and pulse producers and greenhouse operators, including those who market through the Red Hat Co-op in Redcliff, Alta.

“We take it from different sources,” said Martens.

“They’re pretty generous. It’s amazing. All our product is donated.”

On this day, the plant was redolent with the smell of onions, the result of a recent donation. Also on the chopping blocks were carrots and peppers.

The peppers were Mexican product that Red Hat buys to fill its retail contracts when local greenhouses aren’t producing sufficient volume.

Some of those peppers will be cut, dried and shipped back to Mexico to feed the hungry in that country.

Martens said Prairie Gleaners is not affiliated with any church. About 20 volunteers come regularly, and their humanitarian outlook is paramount.

“Our major focus is providing relief food,” he said.

“There’s a lot of people of faith and there’s a lot of people of no faith. We’re able to work side by side in relative harmony.”

Vegetable donations come from across southern Alberta: potatoes from Taber, carrots from Coaldale, beans from Bow Island and tomatoes from Redcliff.

The soup mix blend depends on which vegetables are donated, which means the product label indicates what the mix may contain but does not carry nutritional information.

“We try to blend with what we have,” said Martens.

“We try to make somewhat of a uniform mix, but if we have more potatoes or cabbage or rutabagas or whatever, the blend will marginally go up or down. But it’s amazing how uniform it is.”

Last year brought fewer tomato donations because of lower production due to weather. However, it was a good year for other types of produce.

“We just take what we can get. We were able to pick up a lot of cabbage and things like that this year, which was just a little different than in other years.”

Gleaners is aware that vegetable soup may not fit the food culture of recipient countries, but that’s not a problem. Martens said the product can be added to rice-based dishes or other fare and then spiced or flavoured as desired.

“I think the best way to describe that is that we’re providing nutritional value. In Mexico they Mexicanize it, in India they Indianize it and in the Philippines they Philippinize it.”

Charitable receipts can be issued to those who donate, said Martens. However, the volunteers receive other rewards besides the occasional bowl of vegetable soup.

“You cannot help but come here because you’re feeding a lot of people,” said Lietz.

“When I experienced what I have at a very young age, crying for food, I’m sure wherever this is going, people are crying for food and we are helping a lot of people. It’s such a blessing and it’s such a wonderful situation, what they are doing here.”

Contact barb.glen@producer.com

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