Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is well known for sending high-quality cans of turkey, beef, chicken and pork around the world “in the name of Christ,” providing important nutrients to people in crisis.
What is less well known, however, is that MCC also sends canned meat to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, to be used as part of peace-building work with Mennonite churches and schools.
Every year about 30,000 volunteers gather meat and preserve it in cans when MCC’s mobile meat cannery comes to one of about 35 locations across the U.S. and Ontario. Working with MCC’s canning crew, the volunteers fill, weigh, wash and label every can.
“Every canning location has the option of keeping 10 percent of the canned meat they produce for local food pantries, churches, programs, et cetera,” says John Hillegass, canning and trucking manager for MCC U.S. “Sometimes MCC also distributes domestically, to places like Puerto Rico.”
In early May 2017, MCC shipped 200 boxes of beef canned in Fairview, Oklahoma, to Puerto Rico. With the guidance of Rolando Flores, MCC program director for Puerto Rico, the meat was distributed by Mennonite churches and schools in Puerto Rico.
This project, called the Family Strengthening Program, aided more than 500 people over the course of three months.
According to Flores, “The arrival of the canned meat served as a great incentive for churches to strengthen their work, start new initiatives and create connections with other organizations (in Puerto Rico).”
The churches used the meat to reach out to hungry and sick people in their communities.
That was before Hurricane Maria struck the island on Sept. 20, 2017. Hurricane Maria “led to the discovery of the powerlessness of human beings,” says Flores, who experienced the hurricane firsthand with his family, congregation and fellow Puerto Ricans.
“This event (created) the moment to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ on our island,” he says. “Here began the hard work of putting our (words) into action.”
With the remaining May 2017 shipment of canned beef, Flores and his family were able to begin a hurricane response in their community.
Days after the hurricane, with no electricity, no internet and very little phone service, Flores requested another container of MCC canned meat. This time, MCC shipped 800 boxes of canned chicken, processed in Spartansburg, Pennsylvania.
Upon receiving the canned chicken, Flores distributed the valuable source of protein through Mennonite churches and schools. With the help of his family, Flores saw to it that the canned meat quickly reached more than 40 percent of the island’s municipalities. Before long, other church denominations and nongovernmental organizations partnered with Flores to help spread relief to the island.
For many communities in Puerto Rico, the canned meat was the first sign of relief after Hurricane Maria, Flores says.
“People were surprised because when we arrived at some places, the government or other organizations hadn’t arrived yet,” he says. “But the church did. With fewer resources, we did more.”
In a separate response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) of Mennonite Church USA collaborated with MCC in December 2017 to ship boxes of food which held MCC canned turkey, among other food staples such as rice and seasonings. The 4,008 cans of turkey came from volunteers in Hinton, Virginia, and Myerstown, Pennsylvania.
MDS and ACC churches provided support to pay for the food, supplies and shipments, while MCC’s staff and the Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, gave logistical support. Oregon Dairy, a grocery store and restaurant in Lititz, Pennsylvania, provided the food supplies at heavily discounted prices.
“The Puerto Rican hurricane response was a wonderful example of several groups coming together in working harmony,” says Tom Wenger, MCC U.S. Material Resources coordinator.
For those who volunteer their time to can meat, Flores says, “It’s important that they know the reach that the cans of meat have. They’ve served not only to feed people and families, but to build bridges between churches, families and communities. All through a simple can of meat. It’s much more than a can of meat.”
Currently, MCC has seconded Flores to MDS to coordinate MDS’ long-term hurricane recovery response in Puerto Rico.
Of his new tasks for MDS, Flores says, “It’s a new adventure, because I’ve been working for 14 years with MCC, and I’m (still relating) to the churches, but from a completely different perspective now that we’re in reconstruction.”
By Laura Pauls-Thomas for MCC