Gerald Heimpel, Toby Penner, Andrew Keeler and Stanley Toews, left to right, are working on the MCC mobile meat canner from October 2013 to April 2014. (MCC Photo/John Hillegass)
MCC Photo/John Hillegass

Gerald Heimpel, Toby Penner, Andrew Keeler and Stanley Toews, left to right, are working on the MCC mobile meat canner from October 2013 to April 2014.

WINNIPEG, Man. — The four volunteers working on the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) mobile meat canner develop an extended sense of community with canning volunteers  as they travel across Canada and the U.S., preparing canned meat to be sent around the world.

But Andrew Keeler, one of the canners for 2013-2014, said his role in processing the meat only gave him one side of the picture. “When we’re canning, we can really feel the community aspect of everyone there,” he said, “but at the same time we don’t know how it looks when the can’s being opened and what kind of support it is providing for communities.”

In September, Keeler finally got to meet some of the people at the other end of the chain on a trip to El Salvador and Guatemala. Three of the canners visited Central America to meet those who use the meat and even to sample some recipes.

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 2012-2013 season, more than 660,000 cans, over 1 million pounds of meat, were produced. A portion of those cans was shipped to 13 countries, including to locations in Canada and the U.S.

As Stanley Toews packs cans of meat this year he will remember a visit to Finca Canaán coffee farm in San Martín, El Salvador. The women there prepared a variety of recipes they developed using canned meat, including pupusas, lasagna and stuffed peppers.

“The first time when they received meat they didn’t know how to use it,” Toews said. “They had to invent their own recipes and they showed them to us and we could taste them. It was good.”

At Asociacion Nuevo Amanecer de Santiago Atitlan (ANADESA) in Guatemala, an MCC partner, women receive canned meat for participating in classes such as nutrition, craft making or business. Children in after-school programs also get cans of meat. Keeler appreciates that the meat is used alongside programs to help families achieve long-term success.

“It was neat to see how the projects used the meat and other resources to enhance the community,” he said. “It’s not just handed out and forgotten.”

Every two years the canners visit projects where the meat they package is used. “It is important for the canners to see the fruit of their labors and to witness where canned meat goes and who it helps,” said John Hillegass, MCC’s canning coordinator.

Canners also return from the trip with stories to tell the thousands of volunteers who help throughout the season, providing a bridge between the meat they can and those who eat it.

Andrew Keeler of Bluffton, Ohio; Toby Penner of Para Todo, Paraguay; Stanley Toews from Loma Plata, Paraguay; and Gerald Heimpel of Kitchener, Ont., began this year’s canning season on Oct. 8 in Sterling, Ohio. To see if the mobile canner will visit your city, check the schedule at