Vegetables as service: How a week chopping and dehydrating vegetables can shape students perspectives on the world

Dec 18, 2023 | Student Story

For most people, cutting up vegetables is just part of their regular daily routine. There aren’t many lessons to be learned from chopping onions and peppers. But for the Grade 10 RJC students who spend a week at the Okanagan Gleaners, the simple act of chopping veggies can be something that ends up shaping their world view.

Every year during RJC’s Alternative Learning and Service Opportunities (ALSO) week, the Grade 10 class goes to volunteer with the Gleaners in Oliver, B.C. The Gleaners’ mission is to take produce that would otherwise be wasted and turn it into healthy food that is sent to hungry people around the world.

The potatoes that are too small, the green peppers that got lumpy, the tomatoes with a bad spot on them – all these vegetables are still okay to use but don’t meet the standard to be sold in grocery stores. And that’s where the Gleaners come in. “We gather up excess produce that’s unsalable. Too big for market, too small for market. Not ripe enough or overripe,” says Greg Masson, general manager of the Okanagan Gleaners. “[We] trim off the parts that need to be trimmed off, dice up everything else, dehydrate it and make it into a nutritious vegetable soup mix. And we ship it around the world wherever our partners are on the ground.”

When the RJC class heads to the Gleaners, they do the work of chopping and preparing those vegetables side-by-side with other volunteers, who are often older. And that intergenerational experience was fun and meaningful for the students. “The people we’re working with were so open to working with a bunch of teenagers,” says Eliza Rinholm, a Grade 11 student who went on the Gleaners trip last year. “They treated us as equals and with respect. And we worked really well together, and we just really had a good time working with them.”

For Zenon Borne, another student on last year’s trip, the trust those adults placed in the Grade 10 class meant a lot. “I really tried to give back that trust, and so a big thing for me, and a lot of people, was being first in last out on the floor. I felt like I could make a difference by doing that,” he says.

Having a group of students for the week is also a nice change of energy for the regular staff and volunteers. “It’s so exciting,” Greg says. “New energy, youthful exuberance. And youngsters that are so willing to learn, learn about helping others that are struggling.”

That learning component is a big part of what RJC hopes students will take away from their time at the Gleaners. They’re there to help do the work, and they spend time enjoying camping in the Okanagan, but they also learn about the idea of service. RJC principal David Epp says in the lead up to the trip they gave students three frames of reference to think about their work at the Gleaners: first is Menno Simon’s concept of true evangelical faith that becomes fruits of the spirit, second is the song “Will You Let Me Be Your Servant,” and lastly and prayer from Teresa of Ávila with the idea that Christ has no hands and feet on the earth except for ours.

While students are working there they hear stories about where the food ends up, and they can see how they’re making a difference. And those positive experiences stuck with them. “It felt pretty good,” says Eliza, “when we were chopping potatoes or peeling onions you can see your progress as you went. You can see just how much work we’re getting done throughout the day. And then also at the end of it, being like wow, we really helped people.”

For Greg, it’s exciting to see how the time at the Gleaners can shape students’ perspective as they learn more about where the food they make is going and why. “I see that an awful lot of these young people realize that the world is bigger than their world,” he says. “The picture becomes bigger … we are actually working and feeding hungry people.”

RJC appreciates how the school’s long-standing partnership with the Gleaners allows students a place to learn and practice service. “We have just this amazing classroom to teach lessons about service and learning and relationships, global responsibility and food insecurity,” says David. “It has been so affirming to work with an organization that understands part of their role as teaching young people how to be servants. … This vision of work that is peace oriented is put before students and then they are shown ways in which their efforts can contribute to that in meaningful ways.”

Photo: The Grade 10 IMAGINE class processing discarded vegetables at the Okanagan Gleaners in Oliver, B.C.