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Growing Solutions to Hunger

Kalamazoo Valley Gleaners was started by, from left, Jim and Jane Van Tuinen and Mary and Nate Rykse.
Gleaners group to turn surplus produce into sustenance

The numbers are staggering. Across the world, 750 million people are going hungry. Every day, 25,000 men, women and children die of starvation.

It was these numbers that captured the minds and hearts of Jim and Jan Van Tuinen and spurred them to found Kalamazoo Valley Gleaners, which they hope will begin operations by fall.

“Two years ago, in 2021, about a year into my retirement, Jane and I came back to Michigan from our getaway in Florida, and I said to Jane, ‘I need something to do,’” says Jim Van Tuinen, the retired owner of Van Tuinen Painting.

Being a couple of deep faith, the Van Tuinens prayed to find the path where they might be of most use.

“A few days later I came across an article in the Calvin University alumni magazine,” Jim Van Tuinen says. “It was about a nonprofit called Sus Manos Gleaners, located in Jenison.”

The Van Tuinens were fascinated by what they read about Sus Manos Gleaners, which accepts food donations from West Michigan farms, processes the food and ships it to Christian missions that serve the poor. Both Van Tuinens are Calvin College (now called Calvin University) alumni. Jane is now retired from a career as a teacher, and Jim from his successful painting business. Both grew up in the Grand Rapids area, and Jenison is just down the road from Grand Rapids, so the Van Tuinens made a call to the father-and-son team of Jim and Tim Paauw, who had launched Sus Manos Gleaners.

“And they said we were the answer to their prayers,” Jim Van Tuinen says, noting that the Paauws were feeling the need to expand their operation.

A visit ensued, and the Van Tuinens learned about the gleaning business. Gleaning is a process of collecting surplus produce from local farmers, preparing it for shipment by washing, chopping, dehydrating and packaging it, and then working with relief agencies to ship the produce overseas to feed the hungry and malnourished.

“This is food that might otherwise end up in a landfill,” Jim Van Tuinen says. “The food waste in our country, unfortunately, is huge. There is no question that this planet produces enough food — it’s just a matter of getting it into the hands of people who need it.”

Tackling food waste

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in the United States is wasted. Much of that food is nutritionally valuable but either is left over or considered “imperfect” and therefore not shipped to grocery stores. Food is the single largest category of material that ends up in U.S. landfills.

“We spent some time volunteering in Jenison and learning the business,” Van Tuinen says. “We also visited two other gleaners in Canada. They gave us a model to follow.”

Jane Van Tuinen notes that there are currently only two gleaning organizations in the U.S. that dehydrate and package food for redistribution, “and we decided we wanted to be one,” she says.

The couple networked widely, approaching friends and their church congregation to talk about their mission of feeding the hungry and to ask for donations. Friends Nate and Mary Rykse quickly signed on as co-founders of what has become Kalamazoo Valley Gleaners. Together, they contacted an attorney to begin the process of gaining 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which they achieved in October 2021.

“We were able to raise $923,000 in donations, but our total budget is around $2.5 million,” Jim Van Tuinen says. “And volunteers — we need many, many volunteers.”

They also needed a building where they could gather produce and prepare it for shipment. A generous donor purchased a 23,000-square-foot building off King Highway for their use. Work is now underway to convert the building to their needs. Completion of the building is expected by fall.

Among the Van Tuinens’ first steps in establishing Kalamazoo Valley Gleaners was meeting with local farmers to see what produce might be available and how to gain access to it.

“So far, we have five to six farmers who have committed to us,” Jim Van Tuinen says. “Mostly what is available are potatoes — cosmetically imperfect but nutritious. Once the potatoes are delivered to us, some 20 to 40 volunteers will be needed to wash the food, cut the produce up and trim defects, place them (the potato pieces) on cookie trays and racks, send them through a chopper,” and finally dehydrate them. “About 1,000 pounds of potatoes can be reduced to 100 pounds that way, then boxed up for storage.”

“Then when the boxes are received, all that you need to do is to boil the potatoes in water and prepare them as needed,” Jane Van Tuinen says.

Putting plans in motion

An organization known as Feed the Hungry, located in South Bend, Indiana, has committed to assist Kalamazoo Valley Gleaners with shipping and to absorb the shipping costs, planning to deliver 2,200 boxes of produce per shipping container to churches, missions and orphanages in 26 countries worldwide.

“We see (providing) 400,000 meals per day at this point, but we have a goal of providing a million meals a day,” Jim Van Tuinen says. “While we are mostly working with potato farmers now, we plan to expand this to other vegetables too.”

The Van Tuinens say they understand the importance of food sustainability and growing food in an eco-friendly manner, “but we don’t pretend to that at this point,” Jim Van Tuinen says. “First, you need to be fed before you can work on that next step.”

Through a grant from an anonymous foundation, Kalamazoo Valley Gleaners has been able to purchase a massive food dehydrator and is now working to purchase and install the remaining needed machinery.

“Right now it’s all about fundraising and finding volunteers,” Jim Van Tuinen says. “This is work that is not for the faint of heart, but it is deeply rewarding and an intense spiritual experience for us. We feel God’s hand upon us. We hope to be a community asset with worldwide impact.”

“We cannot flourish without the support of our community,” Jane Van Tuinen adds. “The answer to world hunger is literally growing around us.”

Zinta Aistars

Zinta is the creative director of Z Word, LLC, a writing and editing service. She is the host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK, and the author of three published books in Latvian — a poetry collection, a story collection and a children’s book. Zinta lives on a small farm in Hopkins, where she raises chickens and organic vegetables, and wanders the woods between writing assignments.

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