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Originally published November 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 5, 2008 at 12:02 AM

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Mormon canneries preserve the spirit of self-reliance

In a sign of these tough economic times, the use of canneries run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has soared.

Seattle Times religion reporter

When it comes to having sacred experiences, one probably wouldn't think of a cannery in Kent.

But for about a dozen Mormon church members on a recent day, stirring steaming vats of salsa and wiping sauce from pint-size Mason jars were ways of expressing their faith — not to mention a means of preparing for a recession.

Above the grinding noise of the machines, the church members — hair tucked into hair nets, work gloves snapped neatly into place — chatted about their families while putting salsa-filled jars on a slow-moving conveyor belt.

"I love going to the cannery because there's a great feeling of camaraderie," said Kristen Jenson, 49, a homemaker and technical writer from Bothell. "It's like a little beehive."

Later that afternoon, the canners would each take home several cases of salsa to their families — part of an estimated 400,000 cans of corn, jars of peaches, packages of wheat and other foods the cannery turns out each year.

In these tough economic times, layoffs, longer lines at food banks and other signs of distress are readily apparent. What's less apparent, though also very much a reflection of these anxious times, is what's happening here in Kent and at dozens of other Mormon-run canneries across the country.

The canneries are busier than ever. Their use in Washington and nationwide doubled over the last year.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are taught to prepare for emergencies by having at least three months' of food, water and money on hand. Now it appears many are intensifying that effort, stocking up in case a family member gets laid off or food prices keep going up. Some of the canneries are also producing goods for the church's vast internal welfare system and for local food banks.

Jenson remembers how scared she was when her husband was laid off years ago.

So she keeps her laundry-room shelves filled with a supply of beans, pasta, rice and sugar. Doing so provides a sense "of peace and confidence," she said, "of knowing we can provide for ourselves during times of financial downturn."

To cannery manager Bill Lawrenson, "putting food in a can — it's a process."

The real meaning, he said, comes from helping those in need and seeing people become more self-reliant.

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"Some of the most sacred experiences of my life (are) in this facility."

Volunteer effort

For church members, a session at the cannery works like this: They volunteer their time and labor but pay the cost of the food itself. Many times, it works out cheaper than buying at a store.

The salsa, for instance, ended up costing $19.80 for a case of 12 pint jars — $1.65 a jar.

It's easier — and far faster — than canning a similar amount at home, said Elizabeth Bohon, 36, a Seattle homemaker. Plus, "I like the taste better than store-bought canned."

The 45-year-old Kent cannery is located just north of downtown on 10 acres that also include a community garden and four grain silos filled with wheat.

In addition, there's a warehouse that distributes free food to people in need — church members or not — providing they get the approval of a local bishop. The warehouse also stocks supplies to be given out in the case of natural disasters. When Lewis County flooded last year, for example, the church sent bread, canned fruit, sleeping bags and other supplies from the Kent warehouse.

It's all part of an extensive church welfare system that also includes farms, thrift stores and employment centers.

Additionally, the Kent cannery works indirectly with local food banks.

David Ottey, executive director of the Emergency Food Network of Pierce County, gets a bit emotional when he talks about how his agency's 12-year partnership with the cannery has resulted in the production of a million cans of corn, applesauce and salmon for food banks and shelters.

The network provides the food, canning supplies and labor, and uses the cannery for free. "Otherwise, we couldn't do it," Ottey said.

The cannery is now exploring a similar partnership with Northwest Harvest.

Part of church history

For church members, the concepts of self-reliance and helping one another have historical and theological roots.

Back in the mid- to late 1800s, as Mormons migrated West, "there was nobody to help them except themselves," said Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University and a leading scholar on Mormon history.

Thus, an ethic was born in which "the church would help people emigrate to Utah, then those people would pay the church back, and that would be used to help more people emigrate."

The first canneries were established during the Great Depression, the premise being that food is fundamental to self-reliance.

"A hungry person has a very difficult time looking for a job," said Kevin Nield, of Salt Lake City, an official in the welfare department of the worldwide church.

Theologically, church leaders talk of the biblical story of Joseph, who stocked up during seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine. They point to church Scripture that says, "If ye are prepared, ye shall not fear."

Jenson, the Bothell church member, remembers when her divorced mother struggled financially, and food from her grandmother's stockpile helped feed the family. "I have been blessed by this principle (of storing food) since childhood," she said.

While the church also believes members should be prepared for tumultuous days before the Second Coming of Christ, that teaching is not emphasized — "it's not like this big, scary 'Ooooo,' " said Bohon, the Seattle church member.

Bohon's reasons for storing food — and canning — are more pragmatic. Besides wanting to be prepared in case of a natural disaster, she recalls the time her husband was out of a job for eight months and they were living largely on the rice, beans, oatmeal and other basics in their food supplies.

They learned "the importance of having yummy things" to spice it up, she said. Hence, the salsa.

Besides, several at the Kent cannery said, they like the idea of being able to help those nearby in an emergency.

"Like right now, if there's an earthquake, I would have more meat in my freezer than we could eat, so probably some would go to neighbors," said Merrily Wolf, 44, a homemaker in Seattle.

"You want to protect your family," she said. And "you want to protect and help those around you if you can."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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