March 15, 2011
For those working within the green industry, Verbinnen’s Nursery is a well-known specialist in growing native tree and shrub seedlings. But many do not know that outside the industry, the nursery’s owner John Verbinnen is the founder of the Ontario Christian Gleaners.

And what is a Gleaner?

Ontario Christian Gleaners is a inter-denominational charitable Christian organization in which volunteers clean, dice, dry, mix and bag surplus produce such as onions, carrots, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, including, apples and pears, into a nutritious soup mix and fruit snack ready for distribution. The dry mix is donated to reputable relief organizations that distribute the food where it is needed.

Food wasted

Each year over 210 million kilograms of food is wasted in Toronto alone, and an average of 90 tons of what is termed imperfect produce is tilled under on an annual basis. In 2003, a group of Christians from the Hamilton and Cambridge areas were inspired to start a gleaning operation, enabling the vast amounts of wasted produce to be dried into soup that would, in turn, feed the hungry. Five years later, the Ontario Christian Gleaners started production, and as of today, more than three million servings of soup have been sent overseas to combat the statistics that show a child dies overseas every 3.5 seconds due to hunger-related issues.

“I became very interested in it, because a good friend of mine has a farm, and I know the amount of waste that goes on,” recalls John Verbinnen. After traveling out west to observe the gleaning operation for himself, “I felt the Holy Spirit working in my heart about starting one here.”

The concept just made sense, Verbinnen says. “The idea of dehydrating vegetables so they have longevity, and making them lightweight so it’s economical to ship; the fact that they hold 85 per cent of their nutrients — it was a no-brainer. I thought, ‘Why didn’t someone think of this sooner?’ ”

The Gleaners drive away with truckloads of slightly bruised or off-colour vegetables from the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto. The process helps the terminal, otherwise it would need to pay to dump the rejected vegetables. Other produce is obtained from local grocery distribution centres.

Over 150 volunteers

Operating from a building just off Highway 8, south of Cambridge, the Gleaners consist of 150 volunteers from across south-western Ontario who take turns to collect, sort, wash and trim donated vegetables every morning, each week, Monday to Friday.

Following morning devotions, vegetables are wheeled out on skids to be washed and trimmed. Once blemishes are removed, the vegetables are tossed into a big bucket, and from there into a dicing machine. The cubes are put into large plastic bins which are rolled to the drier and shoveled onto a conveyor belt and into the drier-chute. Vegetables are evenly spread out onto a five-foot-wide stainless steel belt. Up to 4,000 pounds of produce are dried at once, taking seven to eight hours.

Vegetables mixed in bags contains protein

Once enough vegetables have been diced and dried, the plant shifts gears for a week and focuses on mixing and bagging the produce, along with protein of some sort—barley, beans or lentils.

Sealed three-pound bags are packed into barrels or pails to be shipped out by various organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse, Feed the Children (FTC) Canada, and the Mennonite Central Committee, among others.

Up to 15 churches are represented on any given day. Gerry Verrips, a retired flower grower, has been a regular volunteer since the operation opened. He sees working at the Gleaners as both a privilege and a responsibility. “I believe it is our duty of man to help.”

The dried soup mix is sent to Malawi, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Philippines, refugee camps in Ghana, and orphanages in Romania and Albania.

Verbinnen’s Nursery was established in the year 2000 when John and Cindy Verbinnen acquired the nursery from Cindy’s father, Henry Groen, who retired from operating Groen’s Nursery. John and Cindy have over 30 years experience in growing tree and shrub seedlings, having worked in the industry for several decades. Verbinnen’s Nursery has been a member of LO since the year 2000.
For more information about the Ontario Christian Gleaners, including volunteer opportunities, contact Shelley Stone at 519-624-8245, or visit