By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer
All around southern Alberta and Saskatchewan we see astonishing examples of the charity and fantastic citizenship of our agriculture community. In some ways it comes down the age old prairie tradition of hospitality and generosity. In some ways it hearkens back to the simple, but extraordinary, attitude of neighbours helping neighbours.
Somewhere where those two aspects intersect, you find organizations like the Prairie Gleaners Society working alongside producers to carry local food to the world in places where war, famine and climate hostility make growing food sustainably almost impossible.
The Prairie Gleaners Society set up shop near Medicine Hat eight years ago with the mission to take local food that was going to waste, dehydrate it and prepare it for shipment overseas as emergency food rations to places in crisis.
Faith is part of the Prairie Gleaners Society’s perseverance and expansion over that time period, but so too are the core of about 25 daily volunteers, mostly retired seniors, who make the trek out to the Prairie Gleaners processing facility five days a week without fail to do this important work.
When James Smith, president of the Prairie Gleaners Society, thinks of the hard work of those volunteers to keep the mission alive he is deeply grateful.
“If you asked any one of them, a very common answer would be: They get it,” says Smith. “They want to do something worthwhile in retirement rather than sitting around Tim Horton’s wasting time. A lot of them like the idea of being able to contribute in a meaningful way, and they can do that here. It’s also quite a social time when they are all out here. Anybody and everybody is welcome.”
The second thought Smith has is for the local greenhouses and members of the farming community who continue to provide, free-of-charge, all the produce his volunteers need to carry on their work.
“We have a relationship with a number of growers,” explains Smith. “With Red Hat Co-op, a number of the greenhouse growers and different vegetable farmers in the area, and we have never had to go begging. In fact, it has almost been the reverse when we have been offered culled vegetables. There is such an abundance of that in this area that we are doing our best just to capture a small amount of what’s available.
“These producers would much rather see this put to good use rather than have to dump it or plough it back into the ground; whatever they have to contend with to dispose of this beautiful food, which for them is unmarketable.”
The Prairie Gleaners Society collects weekly from their regular producers, who box the produce and set it aside for them. Most of what they collect are tomatoes and peppers from what amounts to just two greenhouses out the dozens in the area. The Gleaners also have other large vegetable producers and the Bow Island Bean Plant who give them product on a regular basis. Altogether they collect a huge diversity of produce: Cabbage, onions, carrots, green beans, radishes, zucchini, potatoes, peppers, corn and split or broken dried beans.
“We never know where it’s all going to come from,” confirms Smith, “but on a consistent basis the bulk of what we get are from the greenhouse industry; so Red Hat Co-op and a few other major vegetable growers in the area. We maintain an ongoing relationship with a few producers rather than try to gather what we need willy nilly. And that seems to work best for us and those producers as well.”
Smith explains how the next stages of the process work after the vegetables are collected.
“We have our large, walk-in cooler for the perishables we need to preserve. And then all the vegetables are processed. We take the cores out and remove stems and all the inedible parts. And then it’s all diced and made ready for dehydration.
“Over the course of the year we will build a reserve of a wide variety of the vegetables we get, and then usually in January/February we start to individually bag them in three pound bags with all the different vegetables mixed together along with the protein, such as the dried beans. These are then heat sealed, boxed and shipped out to various aid organizations we work with for transport and distribution overseas.”
Smith says it is truly staggering the amount of food which goes to waste in Canada, and other countries, on a regular basis; all for a few blemishes and a lack of ability to preserve this nutritious and healthy food.
“Food waste occurs everywhere in the world. It so huge. And why other places are not dehydrating…. Here in North America they try to unload stuff on the food banks fresh and distribute fresh as quickly as possible. To me, I think this, (gestures around the Prairie Gleaners processing centre), is a solution: Dehydrating food can be done anywhere without electricity, and it could really help alleviate hunger around the world.”
Smith says the agricultural entities his organization works with do get this fact, and that’s why they have always been so supportive of the Prairie Gleaners work. They would like to see the Gleaners’ mission expanded to take on even more product. However, Smith says the work they do is limited, thanks to only having a small core of volunteers.
That would need to change to take on a greater amount of work.
“The relationship with the local agriculture community has been tremendous. They would much rather see this food put to good use rather than have to dump it… They are very happy to give it to us. I think this is a feel good situation for everybody, but we are somewhat limited by the number of volunteers we can get out on regular day. We operate year-round and try to do the best we can.”
For more information on how you can support the Prairie Gleaners Society visit their website at www.prairiegleaners.com.