Many organizations around the United States hold canned food drives to help those in need. One Pennsylvania faith-based relief organization holds a drive with a twist: volunteers can the food themselves. Each winter, the Mennonite Central Committee sends a meat-canning truck on a tour of North America. The truck is equipped with industrial-size pressure cookers, and each community it visits mounts an all-out effort to can as much meat as possible before the truck moves on to the next stop.
About 30 people crowd into a small barn on a farm just outside of Freeport, Illinois. They work in shifts, from 5 in the morning until 10 at night. Over the course of two days, they'll cook and can over 6,300 kilos of turkey meat to be sent to hungry people all over the world.
Meat canning is a more-than-50-year-long tradition in the Freeport area. Larry Pfile, who helps to organize the annual event, explains the process. "We're looking at the raw turkey which will be dumped into a vat which holds several hundred pounds and it will be stirred manually for maybe five to ten minutes to warm it up a little bit."
After volunteers pack the meat into cans by hand, they are passed down a can-line. "A machine will stamp the lid, put a lid on it. And then the cans, once they're filled, are put into a vat which holds 140 cans and that will go into a pressure cooker."
After cooking for about two-and-a-half hours, Pfile explains the cans continue down an assembly line. "We literally wash the cans one at a time in a dishwash-type tub, and pass them on to the next person who dries them and they go on down the line and the glue is put onto the labels and they're manually put onto each can." The cans are then stamped with an expiration date and put into a box to be shipped to the MCC warehouse in Pennsylvania.
Canned meat has about a three-year shelf life. It's one of the only sources of protein for many of the people who receive it. The canning facilities are inspected by the US Department of Agriculture, and the USDA logo appears on each can's label.
Morris Scholl, 85, is one of the many volunteers at the Freeport event. He's been helping with the annual meat-canning blitz for more than 50 years, and says, "I know where it goes they really need something to eat."
One of the places these cans go is North Korea. In the past three years, the Mennonite Central Committee has shipped more than 450 tons of meat to the isolated Communist nation, under a partnership with the World Food Program. MCC Resource Network Director Dave Worth visited North Korea in 2000 to help oversee distribution of the meat.
He says he was able to witness the impact of the donated food first-hand, adding, "It was the same situation in every place we went. You'd go to the orphanage, the woman in charge would come and greet you, she'd take you around and she would basically say 'Without your help, our children would still be dying. Look now', she'd say, 'here's 15 children in this room', and she said 'Before your food came, there would be one child dying in this room everyday. Now, because of your food, see, they are very happy and they are fat.'" He says the phrase in Korean.
Back at the canning operation, Paige Weber, 4, is helping her mother Janet. The two attend Freeport Mennonite Church, and Janet says this weekend is a great opportunity to put words into action. "This is to teach her to learn how to help other people that are in need. I've been doing it since I've been coming to the church. My husband's gone to the church pretty much all his life, and it's just something that we're teaching our kids to do."
Turkey is a recent addition to the meat-canning tradition in places like Freeport. For many years, beef was the meat of choice. Local farmers would donate livestock and the animals were slaughtered and butchered on-site. Now, the fear of mad cow disease has complicated the process of shipping US beef to many parts of the world. The Freeport-area Mennonites raise money throughout the year to help purchase turkey from a processing plant in the neighboring state of Iowa.
Even though the meat no longer comes from area farmers, people in places like Freeport still seem to take ownership of their annual turn with the meat-canning truck. MCC representative Roy Jimenez observes, "It's really surprising to see people putting so much care into the process and being so extremely careful about washing your hands, gloves, all the hygiene that is involved in canning meat."
The MCC truck visits about 35 communities each year in the United States and Canada. Along with North Korea, the canned meat is delivered to communities in Haiti and Bosnia.