The Okanagan Gleaners are asking for donations to offset the cost of their new 465 sqm. (5,000 sqft.) warehouse, and any donation will be matched dollar for dollar up by a generous donor out of Abbotsford until September 8.
The new warehouse which was completed earlier this year can store up to 5 million servings of food and came at a cost of $348,000. They do not owe anything on the building, but are seeking donations to build up their reserves again.
The Gleaners sent 10.5 million servings of food abroad last year to those in need, and they have no intentions of slowing down as this warehouse more than doubled the square footage of their entire operation.
The Times Chronicle visited the largest Gleaners in Canada to see the new facility and capture the generous spirit of the volunteers in the summer months.
On July 14, 2023, the Gleaners had 75 people volunteering from as far away as Wenatchee Washington, Red Deer Alberta, Burnaby, and Surrey.
“We pick up vegetables from local growers, like these cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, all from Oliver and this is unsellable produce . . . instead of throwing it away they donate it to us,” explained Greg Masson, General Manager of the Okanagan Gleaners.
All donations are eligible via Canada Revenue Agency for a tax deductible receipt based on the wholesale value of the product. Masson notes that this is far better than throwing it away or paying to haul it to the landfill.
The volunteers work in groups at multiple stations outside under a rooftop. Produce gets carted to their stations and is cut, sorted and prepared.
The produce then gets carted to a machine that dices everything up into small cubes to be spread out onto trays and eventually dehydrated. Masson noted that the dicing machine that they use was one of the most important developments in improving the efficiency of the entire operation.
He noted that when they began in 1996 the Gleaners had to cut everything into small pieces by hand. Back then they made around 100,000 servings of soup per year and now they do close to 40,000 per week.
Around 9 a.m. on Friday morning, Masson stopped everyone and proudly said “39,000 people have had one serving of soup because you came this week,” gesturing to all the volunteers.
He also read a letter aloud that was sent to the Gleaners from a Pastor Silius, from First Baptist Church in Venezuela who was thanking the Gleaners for all the soup they had sent.
Since the Gleaners began with their first production in 1996, they have developed a way of doing things, “everything is a domino effect” Masson said.
Each day, Monday through Thursday, they are able to do two phases of dehydrating. This amounts to about 900 trays in one day. Each 450 tray phase takes about eight hours to dehydrate eliminating 95 per cent of the moisture. Then every morning 8-10 people scrape off all the trays into large bins so that they have hardware to use the next day.
Once the Gleaners have lots of product they convert the place into an assembly line for mixing and bagging the soup.
The final product is a bag with “15 cups of vegetables, beets, carrots, potatoes, whatever we can get. There is also pot barley, and split peas. Wherever this goes, whether it goes - to Burundi, Bosnia, Argentina, or the Congo for instance - soak this in 25 litres of water overnight, bring it to a boil for 15- 20 minutes, there are 100 servings of soup.”
Present for the whole week was a team of around 50 people from Pacific Grace Church in Burnaby who were camping on the property to volunteer.
Carly, who was leading the group was there with her husband and five children. “We are having a great time here . . . It's beautiful, it's such a good experience for families.” She further noted that the multigenerational aspect of the Gleaners is a huge benefit to everyone.
Coleen and Eveylyn were volunteers present from Wenatchee, Washington. They have been coming to volunteer with the Gleaners since 2017, but this was their first time back since the beginning of the pandemic.
Colleen noted that “I have seen vegetables I didn't know existed.” referring to the purple cauliflower they had the chance to cut. Both were very happy to be helping out.
They learned about the Okanagan Gleaners through friends and through happenstance ended up here. “I don't think it was a coincidence, it was the guy [God] upstairs,” Colleen explained.
Masson explained that the newly built warehouse will allow them to have close to 1,000 barrels of dry product in the warehouse, “we will know which ones are potatoes, which ones are carrots, which are beets, which ones are barley, we will know all that.”
They built two buildings as their Covid-19 projects, one was a drive-in freezer and one large warehouse to store products which are far cheaper and more efficient buildings.
“We used to have two of these insulated highway trailers. In the summer months when it gets to be 30-40 C, we would be going through 1,800 litres of diesel fuel a week. So we were spending $25,000- $30,000 a year on diesel fuel,” Masson explained.
So they did not want to put off building a better system any longer and Masson explained Covid-19 gave them the perfect chance.
Anyone who is volunteering with the Gleaners can camp on the property. The Gleaners have a 12 unit RV park, “people can stay here as long as they help us. Part of us getting permission to build the RV park was they couldn't be in competition with commercial parks,” Masson said.
The volunteers are really what Masson is grateful for. “If it wasn't for the over 70 people here, the people from Burnaby, we couldn't do it. We rely so much on volunteers and I love getting school kids. Osoyoos elementary used to send up kids pre Covid-19, Oliver Elementary, South Okanagan Secondary School, Penticton High Leadership came down. It's a great way to teach, especially youngsters about helping out”,” Masson said.
The society was founded in 1994. In 1995 they found the property they are still on today. 1996 was the first year of production. That first year the Gleaners produced 100,000 servings of food. Last year they did about 10.5 million servings of food. They have shipped food to 55 countries since they began.
The Gleaners partner with mostly religious organizations but not all of them are. The most important factor is that whatever society the Gleaners deal with has boots on the ground in the country. Masson explained they learned that was necessary after they had a container stolen in Haiti.
The word “gleaners” comes from a passage in the bible which refers to leaving extra harvest for the poor. “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you.”
Donations via cheque can be sent to the Okanagan Gleaners at 507 No. 3 Road in Oliver BC. Specify "Building project" on the donation. E-transfers can also be sent to okgprop.impro[email protected]. More information can be found at Okanagan Gleaners website.