Many churches view feeding the poor as an important responsibility. But none go about it quite like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Across the country, the LDS church has farms, orchards and ranches. And the crops go to church-owned food processing facilities. Six of these facilities handle perishable food like meat and fruit, including this cannery in Garden City, Idaho.
About 30 new volunteers listen as an elderly man goes through the basics of industrial food processing. There’s hygiene and safety of course but also a lot about God. The trainer asks whose cannery this is. He waits, and after a few murmured answers states firmly “the Lord’s".
It produces more than 2 million cans of food a year for what the church calls its welfare system. It’s staffed almost entirely by volunteers, that includes the people listening to the orientation and the man giving it. Most Mormons in the Boise area know about the cannery, but few outside the church do.
Betty Collins says she’d never heard of it until she was asked to work there. She’s not Mormon, but this retired teacher is a regular volunteer with The Idaho Foodbank. Occasionally, the church will donate a day’s output from this facility to the food bank, and on those days the food bank provides some of the volunteers.
“It was pretty interesting for me just to know this operation is available, that people do this sort of this is wonderful,” Collins says.
Many of these volunteers are not used to doing something as physically demanding as a four hour shift on a production line. No doubt some will be sore tomorrow. But Collins isn’t worried, she says she grew up on a farm and remembers how to work hard.
She puts on a hair-net, gloves and an apron and files into an enormous room with the other volunteers. There are machines two stories tall, conveyor belts, steam and a roar of noise.
The volunteers take their assigned positions and wait for fruit to come to them. This facility handles mostly peaches, pears and tomatoes. December is the last month of its pear season.
These pears started in a church-owned orchard. After they were trucked here, they went into a cold room where they can stay for weeks. They were taken out a few days ago to ripen. Technician Stephen Woodall says then they go into a big machine.
“It will core it, peal it, cut it in half all in one motion,” Woodall says. “Takes about three seconds to do that.”
Woodall is one of only five full-time employees here. He says in a for-profit plant of this size, there would be many times that. So these few employees have to do everything from welding, to machine repair.
“As we tried to start this morning we had a motor that didn’t work, had to troubleshoot, find out what was wrong with it,” Woodall says. “It had a bad plug in on it, changed it out, get it up and going.”
The machines are working fine now, and John Viehweg stares down a large metal tube where thousands of pear halves wiggle toward him
“Fruit will be coming right out of this, and then right down onto the conveyor belt,” Viehweg says. “I’m right here in the first position making sure the fruit is all turned right side up.”
Viehweg took the morning off to work here. He does marketing for a healthcare provider. He’s worked at this cannery several times when his church leaders have asked for volunteers.
The pears start pouring out of the tube as fast as he turn them over. Then volunteers cut out the brown spots and the pears go into gallon-sized cans. Sugar water goes in, lids go on. They’re heated then cooled, then labeled, boxed and stacked in the warehouse.
From here, the cans could go to anyone who needs help in disaster areas around the world says Don Johnson. He directs production and distribution for the LDS welfare program in Salt Lake City.
“We’ve done 104 disasters in 52 countries,” Johnson says. “That’s the 2012 statistics.”
But most of the food the church produces goes to church members in the U.S. and Canada Johnson says. The church places a high priority on taking care of its own. Mormons in need can go to the head of their local congregation, known as a bishop. He orders them food from one of a network of storehouses.
“It’s the best food that money cannot buy because there are no cash registers in any of those bishop’s storehouses,” Johnson says.
But there is an expectation that Mormons who get help like this will pay it back eventually through work.
Rich Cain stands among towering warehouse shelves. Cain says when he retired from the military 20 years ago he couldn’t find a job so he turned to the church.
“For about two weeks we got welfare assistance by food and a couple coats for the kids,” Cain says. “After we got back on our feet and got things going we volunteered as much as we could with our work schedules.”
Mormon culture places high value on work. Don Johnson says the church welfare system is not just about feeding the poor. It’s also there to give members a chance to serve and seek spirituality through sore feet and aching backs.
Now that he’s retired for good, Cain spends one day a week here at the Garden City Cannery. He says it’s his favorite day.
“Now’s my opportunity to pay back many times over what we received but the time of being here is not like a job, it’s doing a service for somebody else,” he says.
Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio