The facts are discouraging: one-third of all food produced in Canada is thrown out, every year, accounting for $31-billion worth of waste. This includes produce we bought at the grocery store and never used; food thrown out at restaurants; expired (but still good) produce, bread, etc., at grocery stores; and farmers who may destroy truckloads of fruits and veggies due to small blemishes or other imperfections.
Now think about the food shortages that also exit in our world. The countries affected by drought, flooding, famine. The people struggling to survive amidst poverty and hardship. The children who go to school or to sleep on an empty stomach. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 815 million people were suffering from chronic malnourishment in 2016.
Methane gas is also produced from food waste, not to mention the huge waste of resources that went into producing the tossed food, making the problem environmental, in addition to social and financial.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, there’s a simple way we can reduce personal food waste: make soup!
Enter Pete Wierenga. Wierenga is founder and executive director of Niagara Christian Gleaners, the latest local chapter of a national organization. Gleaners divert food that will be wasted – mostly from distributors and farmers – to their plant in West Lincoln, Ont., where it is dehydrated and packaged as a nutritionally balanced soup mix and donated to aid organizations around the world.
“We want to be conduits of mercy,” says Wierenga. “We want to be part of lasting change.”
Wierenga used to sit on the board of directors for the Gleaners group in Cambridge, Ont., one of three already in that province. (There are nine in Canada.) Not yet ready for retirement, but wanting a change, Wierenga and his wife sold the family business to their kids and took a step back. They soon started to wonder about starting their own Gleaners organization, bolstered by the great experience they gained as volunteers at the Cambridge site, and a desire to do something about food waste (particularly in a produce-rich area like the Niagara region, where they live).
“God opened the door for us to be a part of this ministry,” says Wierenga. “What we’re building, as a community with others, is exciting.”
Moving forward in mission
The mission of Niagara Gleaners is three-fold: curbing waste, building community through volunteers and sharing the gospel, and meeting the need in countries where food might be scarce.
“We want to partner with bona-fide, quality organizations who have boots on the ground. We want to work cooperatively and conjointly with work they’re already doing.”
That means, for example, if an organization is bringing medical supply kits to a community, they can add their soup packets to the kits. Partnering with school programs to help bring nutritious meals to students – often the only one kids in developing nations get – to the classroom.
“We know that real change happens when we invest in the education system,” says Wierenga, “so that’s something we want to be part of. We want to be a part of lasting change.”
Wierenga is still working on establishing relationships with distributors who can donate truckloads of produce to the brand new plant, where it will be washed, dehydrated and made into soup mix of 10-12 ingredients. A protein source will be added to meet nutritional requirements. Aid agencies then apply to receive the soup packets. Each packet can make 100 servings of soup, once rehydrated.
Organizations are carefully scrutinized to avoid “profiteering.”
The town of West Lincoln is a small, sleepy spot within the Niagara region. Wierenga said the town worked with him to acquire the land affordably, noting it’s a great spot for their senior volunteers who prefer an easy driving route.
The experience of volunteers is an integral part of the Gleaners model. “It’s a pleasant place to serve,” says Wierenga, noting that a regular volunteer may bring along a non-Christian friend, giving them the opportunity to demonstrate Christian community, and share the gospel.
“People can really belong here, and it gives them a place to serve, to plug in and feel valued,” he says. “We work together to ensure we have a lasting impact.”
The plant’s grand opening was on Sept. 29, and included an open house. At the time this issue of CC went to press, they were expecting more than 1,000 visitors.
Once the plant is fully up and running, 75 volunteers (many of them seniors) will work together each morning, packaging food.
“We have common goals, and we’re coming together to accomplish them.”
Food packets can be distributed to virtually any country. Wierenga said the soup can be used as both emergency food aid or as part of longer term community development.
It seems stepping out in faith was a good move. They are so far debt-free, having raised the $2.2-million needed to launch the project. Donations will be needed to keep operations going, but with volunteers and donated produce, operating costs will be kept to a minimum.
“We’re moving forward in faith,” says Wierenga. “Our mandate is to make connections with partners, and to come together with common goals.”
For more information or to volunteer, visit niagaragleaners.org.
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