Opportunities and dilemmas in the use of MCC’s canned meat

For almost 70 years MCC has operated a mobile meat cannery in the U.S. and Canada, shipping chicken, pork, beef and turkey canned by Mennonite, Amish, Brethren in Christ and other communities to countries around the world. In this article I describe the MCC canned meat program and also summarize recent evaluations which identify best practices for how most appropriately to program this unique resource. I specifically examine the role of the canned meat program in fostering relationships with MCC’s supporting constituency, the contribution of animal sourced protein in improving nutrition among vulnerable groups and recommendations for integrating canned meat into various food security and livelihood projects.

Each year from October to May the MCC mobile cannery travels to rural communities in thirteen U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, making over thirty stops along the way. At each of these locations, the canner is met by a group of organized volunteers who donate money, meat, facilities and time to the canning process, motivated by the desire to provide “relief in the name of Christ.” An estimated 30,000 volunteers participate in meat canning each canning season. Meat canning is a tangible service through which these communities help others facing need across the globe.

In 2007 MCC commissioned an external evaluation of MCC’s material resources program (the donation of in-kind kits, blankets and canned meat). The review solicited feedback from MCC’s constituency, program partners and project participants. The review team found that when constituents are involved in donating time to sew, purchase, pack and load items, they are also involved in other ways with MCC, including cash contributions to MCC’s program. Meat canning is beneficial, the reviewers argued, because it is a very visible and community-building way of involving rural Mennonite communities in the activities of MCC. Because canning committees donate space and meat, contribute money to underwrite canning costs and mobilize volunteer efforts, MCC incurs minimal expenses from the operations of the canned meat program.

MCC undertook a review specifically focused on the canned meat program in 2014, exploring appropriate opportunities for MCC’s programming of this unique resource. This review included a survey of MCC staff and partners as well as a literature review of the role of canned meat in food assistance and nutrition programming.

The review report notes that the most significant endemic micronutrient deficiency diseases present worldwide involve iron, vitamin A, zinc and iodine deficiencies. These deficiencies create a greater risk of mortality, especially among children under five and pregnant women, who run a higher risk of developing complications around childbirth. These micronutrient deficiencies also cause an increase in the severity of infections, stunted growth, cognitive impairments and disabilities such as blindness.

Animal-based protein contains many of the micronutrients that are needed to address deficiencies in iron, vitamin A, zinc and more. Approximately 47% of preschool children globally suffer from anemia related to iron deficiency. Animal-sourced foods provide essential macro- and micronutrients as well as fatty acids required for growth and development during childhood. Meat and dairy products contain micronutrients including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins A and B12. Access to animal-sourced food improves growth, the level of physical activity and cognitive performance in undernourished children.

In emergency situations and during regular seasons of increased food insecurity, adequate sources of iron are often not accessible. Use of enriched cereals, pulses and iron-rich vegetables for treatment of iron deficiency often do not provide adequate sources of iron due to poor absorption rates and require complementary vitamin C content to facilitate the breakdown of nutrients. Animal-sourced foods such as meat and fish, on the other hand, contain high levels of iron that is more easily absorbed and provide a more concentrated source of iron.

While the nutritional benefits from meat are clearly of high value, obstacles remain for programming MCC’s canned meat. The canned meat review of 2014 notes the following challenges facing MCC’s canned meat program:

  • The cost and time that it takes to ship, especially to land-locked countries;
  • A lack of halal certification for MCC canned meat, which prevents programming within many Muslim communities;
  • The cultural appropriateness of the meat, which may be uncommon in some diets;
  • The strict and growing health, safety and customs regulations that prevent the shipment of meat or lead to delays in customs clearance and project implementation.

Religious and cultural questions regarding MCC canned meat coupled with logistical hurdles create reluctance on the part of some country programs to pursue the programming of canned meat.

Overall, MCC’s 2014 canned meat review recommends that providing canned meat in an ongoing institutional setting (school feeding, supplementary feeding programs, soup kitchens) is the best way to use this resource. In addition, the review also recommends using meat as a complement to food baskets with locally-purchased products provided in
emergency and seasonal food assistance projects. Building on this review, a three country evaluation of MCC’s drought response across Central America in 2014 recommended MCC canned meat be complemented with other forms of protein.

The production of canned meat has been and continues to be an important connection for many MCC constituents. While programming challenges exist, the connection to MCC constituents and the nutritional value continue to make canned meat a relevant part of MCC’s efforts to address hunger and malnutrition.

Darrin Yoder is material resources manager for MCC, based in Akron, PA.

Learn more:

Fieguth, Anita, Terrence L. Jantzi, Nancy Sider, Ronald E. Yoder, Shirley B. Yoder and Elaine Zook Barge. “Material Resources Program Review.” Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 2007.

Good, Beth, Annie Loewen, Amela Puljek-Shank and Darrin Yoder. “MCC Canned Meat Program Review.” Mennonite Central Committee. 2014.

Dror, Daphna K. and Lindsay H. Allen. “The Importance of Milk and Other Animal-Source Foods for Children in Low-Income Countries.” Food & Nutrition Bulletin. 32/3 (September 2011): 227-243.