In February 2008, New Hamburg resident Dan Troyer had the chance to travel to Burundi and visit a work-for-food program that was handing out cans of turkey meat as payment for reforestation work. When Troyer helped distribute the meat, he was surprised and delighted to find the cans labeled with the number of the Elmira meat canning project.
The Mennonite Central Committee wrapped up this season’s canning in Elmira this week, with another 40,000 cans of turkey meat loaded onto trucks ready for shipping around the world. Over the past 13 years, the Elmira project has shipped a total of 580,000 cans of meat to millions of poor and hungry people.
The MCC canning project started in the United States after the Second World War. Volunteers sent glass jars of food to refugees in Europe, but the glass proved too fragile. So the relief committee switched to tin cans, sealed by a portable canner that could be moved from town to town.
Troyer, born and raised in the United States, had grown up helping with canning every year. When he married a Canadian and moved to this area, he wanted to bring the canning project here.
It took two years to plan, get approvals and fill out paperwork, but in 1997, the canner came to Ontario for the first time. Canning was done at the University of Guelph for a number of years, because it had a licenced facility, then moved to the Elmira Produce Auction Cooperative.
“This is the backyard of many volunteers who come to help out,” said Trevor Adams of MCC Ontario. “It’s very much a social and community event, and Elmira definitely has the heart for it.”
MCC Ontario started out canning beef but switched to turkey five years ago because of the BSE scare. While the meat they were shipping was safe, there were restrictions on shipping beef to or through certain countries.
The volunteers don’t yet know where the meat canned this year will go; in the past, it’s gone to Sudan, Liberia, Serbia, the Congo, Kazakhstan, North Korea and Burundi. Distribution of the meat is done according to requests from MCC staff or partner organizations working on the ground.
“Instead of people who are removed from the situation guessing what the priorities are, the people in the community are choosing their own priorities,” Adams explained.
Sometimes MCC will ship a 20-foot container packed with cases of meat, but more often it will be a mixed load containing refugee kits, school supplies, comforters or hygiene kits as well as the meat.
Visiting Burundi, Troyer got a first-hand look at what the meat means to the people on the ground.
“Until you’re over there and give it to someone and look them in the eye, you don’t really understand,” he said. “You always know it in your head, but until you’re over there and give it to someone – then you know it in your heart.”
The comment they hear most often, Adams said, is that people are amazed they haven’t been forgotten by people halfway around the world.
“Being remembered, I think, has an enormous boosting capacity for the recipient.”