Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mennonite Mobile Meat Cannery

The temperature was in the single digits the frosty morning when we drove to the Valley View Mennonite Church in Spartansburg, PA. Parked next to the church’s loading dock was the object of our visit, the Mennonite Mobile Meat Cannery. We had come to learn how this long-standing charity of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) operates, and to help with the day’s canning of turkey meat.

The history of the Mennonite mobile meat cannery began in 1946, when hungry Europeans needed high protein food relief. Today, MCC distributes over 500,000 28-oz cans of meat worldwide each year, all produced by volunteer workers at the 33 stops the mobile cannery makes in 13 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Four volunteer canner operators spend overlapping 2 year terms driving the canner to the sites and working with local volunteers to produce the canned meat. We met operator George Wieler, who was on duty the day we were there.

Chunking turkey prior to canning
We also met Albert Brenner and Susan Bell, who have been coordinating canning at the Spartansburg site for many years, and we spoke on the phone with John Hillegass, MCC Canning Coordinator. Albert showed us the canning process, all of which is done under USDA rules and with USDA inspectors frequently on-site:
  • Meat arrived at the canning site on a refrigerated truck. Spartansburg purchased boneless turkey thighs from Virginia Growers, and it arrived in 20-lb. bags on 1-ton pallets. (Earlier in the canner’s history, most meat was home-grown beef or pork. Now, about 85% of MCC meat is turkey. Reasons include that turkey is lower cost, acceptable in more countries worldwide, and easier and cleaner to can because they don’t have to drain off fat from the already lean turkey meat.) 
  • Next, using a large meat grinder, 4 volunteers cut the turkey thighs into ¾” chunks. Each 60-lb batch of chunked meat was added to the large steam vat at the beginning of the canning line in the mobile cannery trailer. 
    Packing turkey chunks
  • Ten men operated the canning line. First, salt was added and two men used large paddles to pound and stir the meat until it reached a uniform 56 degrees F, warm enough to keep the meat from expanding too much and bursting the cans in the cooker. Then they placed a rack over the vat, loaded it with empty cans from the smaller truck you can see in the picture, and hand-filled each can to the proper weight. One or two men operated the lidding machine, and another put the sealed cans into a huge cylindrical metal basket.
  • When the basket was full (140 cans), George hoisted it into one of the 6 steam pressure canners, tightened the lid, and recorded when the canner reached 246 degrees F. Each lot remained in the canner for 2 hours and 10 minutes to cook and sterilize the meat. While all 6 canners were cooking, workers sterilized equipment, prepared for the next runs, and had a few minutes to take a break.
    George hoistng cans into the steam canner
  • As each lot of cans was done cooking, George hoisted the basket out of the canner and into a cooling water bath for 15 minutes. The basket was then wheeled down to the church basement, where two lines of volunteers washed, rinsed, dried, and applied a label to each can. This is where we helped out.
  • Washing, rinsing, drying, labeling
  • Other volunteers ran each can under an inkjet printer to mark it with the date it was manufactured. They set aside one can from each lot to be incubated by the USDA to make sure the contents were sterile, then packed all remaining cans in 24-can cartons hand-labeled with the lot number and printed “Turkey Chunks” and “Humanitarian Aid.”
At most sites, this whole process is repeated 7 times a day, beginning at 6:00am and ending after midnight. We were told that Spartansburg expected to can a total of 29,000 pounds of meat in three days: 10,500 pounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, with the remainder and cleanup on Thursday. At the end of the 3-day canning event, all the boxes will be loaded onto a truck using a “bucket brigade” and sent to MCC in Akron, OH, for distribution throughout the world.  Some cans go to the US, especially to disaster areas. But most go to places in great need of supplemental protein, such as Haiti, North Korea, and sites in eastern Europe and South America. MCC takes great care to distribute only to relief agencies that directly use the food to feed people in need.

Canned and ready to go

Susan explained the months and months of organizing it takes to sponsor a single 3-day canning event:
  • Raise the funds needed to rent the canner and to purchase the meat and supplies 
  • Arrange for food to feed the workers
  • Arrange all the other accompanying activities, such as collecting donated soap and tying 33 comforters that groups had pieced earlier 
  • Recruit and schedule all the volunteers
Overall, it takes about 40 volunteers at all times to run the canning operation, and often as many as 100 were present. Yet, nobody was barking orders.  Everyone seemed to know their roles, to naturally pitch in, and to keep the whole process running in an efficient, relaxed, and good-natured way.

Who were all those volunteers? When we were there, many were different groups of Amish who had hired vans and drivers to bring them to Spartansburg. Others were Mennonites, either from this church or others in western Pennsylvania or nearby areas of New York or Ohio. Volunteers traveled from as much as 1-2 hours away.

Is the meat cannery cost-effective? We believe the answer is yes. As far as we could tell, the per can cost to the local organizing committees of this MCC meat approximates wholesale prices. Therefore, you might think MCC should just buy cans of meat to ship to those in need. However, could as much money be raised simply to purchase relief supplies? No. People donate both money and volunteer hours partly because their donation includes the direct hands-on experience of caring for other people in need.

Folks at the Spartansburg site and the Mennonite Central Committee impressed us with their clarity of purpose: “The meat cannery allows my hands to better the lives of others around the world.” “You show love through taking care of other people.” “Our number 1 priority is to serve God, and this is a special way to do that.”

Or, as their label says, “Food for relief in the name of Christ.”


  1. Hi Carolyn & Betsy...nice blog about our project. One correction: meat comes in 40# bags; not 20#.
    Glad to have met you and will be looking for future blogs of your trip. God bless as you travel!

  2. Who knew that this even existed. Thank you for sharing this with with us. What a labor of love.
    Pat Taydlor

  3. You'd think I could spell my own name... that's Taylor

  4. When we sit down to eat and remember the words of our traditional graces, such as "make us ever mindful of the needs of others," let us give thanks for the Amish and Mennonite workers and the Mennonite Central Committee, and for Betsy & Carolyn's project bringing such efforts to feed the hungry to our attention. We look forward to the descriptions of projects in the states you visit next. Travel safely, friends. G&J

  5. Sorry about my bad English. I want to commend you to humanitarian work and your desire to help all those who need the help is needed. I live in Bosnia, and have many years of humanitarian aid arriving organizacija.U last year or two in Bosnia can find just the cans of canned turkey but not in the distribution of humanitarian organizations, but only as a commodity that is sold at the plots and markets at a price of € 2. Of your interview can be seen that this aid is intended for Eastern Europe, but how and in what manner it came to Bosnia. These claims can be substantiated and photographs where these cans sell and even I've bought a few pieces. I do not want to discourage you in your humane work, but merely to report that your operatives on the ground right under your own business defendants humanitarian activities.

    1. The MCC canned meat is indeed to be a free gift for those in need and not to be sold. We would like to follow up with you (the above commenter) to learn more about what you have seen in Bosnia. Please contact us at Thank you.