Posted on 24 January 2013 by Richard McGuire
At an old tobacco plant on the edge of Oliver, a group of dedicated volunteers is mixing dried vegetables to feed the hungry in distant corners of the world.
The beginning of January marks the time of year when volunteers at Okanagan Gleaners spend a couple weeks making soup mixes from surplus vegetables donated by farmers – vegetables that might otherwise be composted.
To Wally Hlewka, a wintertime Osoyoos resident, wasting this food would be a sin.
“Canada has been so blessed by God,” says Hlewka. “We have so much, and if it wasn’t for organizations like this, everything you see here would be in the compost. Every time that pail goes by, 100 kids get fed.”
Hlewka and his wife Adeline volunteered for a week with the Gleaners in the summer of 2005 and decided they wanted to return when they retired.
Now, as full-time RVers and snowbirds, they escape the chilly temperatures of Prince Albert, Sask. to settle in their Recreational Vehicle in Osoyoos and volunteer at Okanagan Gleaners.
“It’s a hands-on ministry for us, and so we felt led to do this, and we just love it,” says Hlewka. “You can’t winter in Saskatchewan in an RV, so we checked out Osoyoos and the camp there and that’s why we came here with the idea of volunteering.”
The mixing and packaging started January 2 and the Hlewkas plan to come every day during the couple of weeks it takes place.
During the processing of vegetables, which takes place the rest of the year, they plan to volunteer two days a week while in Osoyoos.
The old tobacco building is a congested hive of activity with volunteers from elsewhere, some coming from other parts of B.C., and some from other provinces.
Volunteers often come from Europe and elsewhere in the world, says Vic Peters, plant manager.
Many are snowbirds, though in the summer a number of youth groups also take part.
“Some come for one week, some for a whole month. Some even stay for three or four months,” says Peters.
The Okanagan Gleaners is a non-denominational Christian organization. While some volunteers, like Hlewka, see their purpose in being there “to glorify God,” Peters says anyone can volunteer, whether they are Christian or not.
Okanagan Gleaners was founded in the autumn of 1994 by a small group of South Okanagan Christians who saw the growing needs of the world’s hungry.
At the same time, fruit and vegetable prices in the Okanagan were depressed and much of the food was wasted.
A local orchardist offered them a small acreage with an old 1920s tobacco-drying barn, which they renovated. Production began in July 1996, and since then the group has produced more than 45 million meal servings.
While the Okanagan Gleaners was the first of its kind, others have followed based on its model.
Fraser Valley Gleaners started in 1999 and since then similar operations have started in Ontario and elsewhere.
The Gleaners collect surplus vegetables and fruits mainly from farmers, although they also receive frozen food from Lucerne Foods in Abbotsford.
Many of the major farmers have been donating to the Gleaners for a number of years and are used to the routine. They set aside bins that the Gleaners pick up once or twice a day.
“They know about us, and they’re very generous towards us,” says Peters.
Brussels sprouts, onions, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, turnips, potatoes and peas are gathered, chopped and dried and put into soup mixes. Because diets are different around the world, no spices are added – only salt.
The food is typically “seconds,” but this normally means simply that it doesn’t conform to cosmetic standards for commercial sale.
“We make sure it’s good quality,” says Peters. “That’s one of the key things. We want to have good quality. Also a good blend of different vegetables to make a good soup.”
These days the mixing is taking place with a factory precision. Volunteers use cups to scoop various dried vegetables from bins into yellow plastic pails, which are passed down the line.
This mix is poured into plastic bags and then packed into large drums for shipment around the world.
The food is sent to dozens of countries on virtually every continent of the globe. While some of it is used in disaster relief, most goes to orphanages to feed children, says Peters.
“We want to make sure that we send it with reputable missionary organizations, that we know the produce is going where it’s supposed to go,” says Peters, adding the Gleaners don’t ship it directly themselves. They work with about 50 missionary organizations worldwide, he says.
Over the next couple weeks, volunteers will be filling about 700 barrels with packs of dried soup mix, averaging about 75 barrels a day. That will provide more than six million meal servings.
When that finishes, they take a day to get organized and then return to the year-round task of processing and drying the food donations.
There’s currently no shortage of volunteers, but Peters says the Gleaners are always open to people coming and they don’t turn down any offers to help. They’ll find something for people to do.
A bigger need is to replace the aging building with one offering more workspace and they also need new equipment.
“Our equipment is getting fairly old and so we’re looking at getting a new chopper for instance, but to buy them brand new they’re about $28,000,” Peters says.
New sources of produce are always welcome, he says.
Despite these needs, it’s an organization that thrives on generosity, with farmers donating food, volunteers donating labour and businesses in the community even donating bakery and other goods for the volunteer workers.
“We’re so blessed because we get so much stuff given to us,” says Peters.
As Hlewka puts it, “God blessed us, and we want to pass the blessing on.”