It’s a common sight in most Fraser Valley produce retailers—abundant displays of perfect vegetables, uniformly sized and unblemished ready to go from market to our dining room tables. What we don’t see is the vast amount of imperfect produce that often goes to waste.
But in a South Abbotsford plant, a group of volunteers is hard at work, turning that waste into a nutritious food supplement that has made its way to needy recipients in over 40 countries worldwide.
A faith-based organization, the Fraser Valley Gleaners was established on the principle of gleaning—gathering grain or other produce left by reapers. “There’s a great deal of food that can be salvaged,” says Plant Manager Carl Goosen, “and there are people in need. So we’re doing what we can to help meet that need.”
Goosen, a former dairy farmer, joined the organization after a visit to the Okanagan Gleaners, where he learned of plans for the Abbotsford operation; he’s been serving for 11 years now.
In their first year, Goosen’s team of drop-in volunteers produced a million meals; now the plant generates 10 million meals each year. “We’ve gone from an average of 20 volunteers per day to about 45 to 50,” he says. “Our oldest is 92; he comes in five days a week.”
Most of the volunteers are retired, and some—like Jack Weyh—come from south of the border. Weyh, who also serves on the Gleaners’ Board, brings helpers across the border from Lynden, WA, two days a week. “We work with volunteers and generous donors who give food to people who really need it,” he says. “I can’t think of anything more worthwhile.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the volunteers who help process donated vegetables from local growers: tomatoes from Delta, peppers from Abbotsford and onions—60,000 pounds a year—from Walla Walla, WA. “When those Spanish onions come in,” Goosen laughs, “we’ll be crying for about six weeks!”
Over the summers, the organization welcomes youth groups and vacationers. The property boasts a campsite that guests can use as a base during their stay; the only requirement is that they volunteer mornings in the plant. In addition, the Gleaners host countless school field trips each year. “Trips here give the younger generation a chance to see what’s happening right in their community,” Goosen says.
On this morning, a community of 38 volunteers will process about 2,000 pounds of onions from a shipment picked up from a local wholesaler earlier in the week. In addition to vegetables, donations of dried legumes come in from as far away as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Fresh product arrives from May to November, when volunteers clean, dice, dry and store the vegetables in large bins. From December to April, volunteers package the soup mix—which includes about 10 different vegetables, as well as legumes—into 1.5-kilogram bags, ready for export. Each bag makes about 100 cups of soup. “We work with organizations that have people on the ground for distribution,” Goosen says. “These could be as small as a school group taking a trip to Guatemala, for example—or a large organizations like Food for the Hungry.”
This week alone, the Gleaners filled three shipping containers bound for Paraguay, South Africa and Romania. “There are about 30 organizations we work with each year,” Goosen says. “We donate the food, and they look after the distribution. All we ask is that they communicate back to us—with pictures or stories—so we can show our volunteers how their effort is making a difference.”
As he preps trays of onions for the dryer, Weyh smiles. “We can’t solve the world’s problems,” he says, “but we can help.”
For more information on the Fraser Valley Gleaners, visit their website or email email@example.com.