Almost every year, an entry appears on the October page of the Schroeder family calendar that looks a lot like the previous year’s. It’s near the bottom of the page, late in the month. It says something about meat canning.
Since 1950, three generations of the Arlyss and Letha Schroeder family in Inman, Kan., have volunteered almost annually with Mennonite Central Committee’s meat canner before and when it comes to North Newton.
They are in good company. More than 10,000 volunteers in Canada and the U.S. help each year, not only when the canner is in town but for months before, handling site preparation as well as gathering meat and volunteers.
MCC’s meat canning program has been operating since 1946. Its purpose is to provide safe, nourishing food in settings affected by war, disaster and malnutrition. In the 2011-12 season, more than 556,000 cans — more than 1 million pounds of meat — were produced. A portion of those cans was shipped to 12 countries, including locations in Canada and the U.S.
A canning crew of four, all serving two-year terms with MCC, is on the road from October to early May, stopping at 33 locations. The crew travels with a 42-foot mobile canner where turkey, which is used most often, beef, pork or chicken is cooked and prepared for packaging at each site. The crew oversees the process, making sure it adheres to standards set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Brin Schroeder, 8, got her first experience with the meat-canning process as a 2-year-old. Her parents, Mark and Shel Schroeder, took her along to the MCC Central States warehouse in North Newton, the current annual site. Brin has been helping since she was 5, doing age-appropriate tasks away from machines, like cleaning and labeling cans that have been filled with meat. Now, her 5-year-old brother Ian helps too.
As a child, Brin’s grandfather, Arlyss, also went with his parents. In those days, canner sites would vary, shifting between the Buhler and Inman areas. Later, Arlyss and Letha’s four children volunteered with canning — “as far back as I can remember,” said Mark, Brin’s father.
He, too, started out labeling cans, but when he was older, he stirred meat in the large steam kettle on the canner itself.
Growing up, Mark helped out mainly because in his family, doing so was an expectation. When he went to Tabor College in Hillsboro, he chose to continue helping on his own.
“When you see a need, you want to help out where you can,” he said. Gifts of work, time and money come from God, he said. They are to be shared with people around the world.
Jason Unruh of nearby Peabody, in his second year with MCC’s traveling canning crew, has no doubts about the essential role played by volunteers.
“At every site, we need a minimum of 30 volunteers present at a time,” he said.
Various skills and capabilities are needed. Some do heavy work, like grinding and stirring meat or stacking boxes of finished cans. Labeling cans can be done while sitting down. Preparing and serving meals or refreshments to the canners and volunteers is another need, Unruh said.
Besides Unruh, this year’s traveling canning crew includes David Bricker of Chambersburg, Pa., Toby Penner Enns of Paratodo, Paraguay, and Andrew Keeler of Bluffton, Ohio.
People or groups interested in volunteering can contact John Hillegass, MCC’s canning coordinator, at email@example.com or 717-859-1151. For additional information about the meat canner, visit canning.mcc.org.