They tried to get to the restaurant before seven a.m., so they could avoid the morning rush hour traffic. It was the mid-1970s, and the four men gathered to talk about an urgent situation on the other side of world; famine in Bangladesh and the Sahel region of Africa. John Wieler was a member of what became known as “the breakfast group.”
“We talked about how long it took for NGOs (non-government agencies) to respond with food. It could be up to two years” says Wieler. “We said we had to do something.”
It was prayer and faithfulness to God’s call to feed the hungry that motivated the breakfast group more than 40 years ago.
Wieler worked with MCC Canada. Others in the group also had ties to MCC; David Durksen, an agronomist who was a friend of Wieler’s and Len Siemens, a member of an MCC board.
Art DeFehr, a businessman who had been a service worker for MCC in Bangladesh, was the fourth person in the group. In those early days, and continuing to the present, DeFehr is known as a man with a compassionate heart for the hungry and marginalized.
“When we talked about what was happening, Art was greatly concerned with the famine situation,” says Wieler. “And he was especially concerned about Canada’s poor response to the drought in Mali.”
During those early morning breakfasts, the men exchanged ideas. And they knew that the Canadian prairies had something to offer — grain.
“This idea just sort of hatched, the idea of storing grain that would be immediately ready when famine struck,” says Wieler.
The proposal was for MCC Canada to solicit donations of grain from farmers and store it until it was needed. And they wanted the Canadian government to match the value of the grain in cash. The breakfast group took the pitch to Ottawa, where they already had an advocate. Tony Enns had done service work with MCC, but was then working for the government department in charge of international development. He remembers the day the men came calling.
“One of the arguments from the government side was, what Canadian farmer in his right mind would give away grain when he can sell it?” Enns says. “My pitch back was, okay if farmers don’t give any grain, it won’t cost you any money.”
MCC photo/Alison Ralph
And anticipating the questions they might face in Ottawa, the breakfast group, along with other supporters, had already laid some of the groundwork. They had surveyed farmers about the possibility of donating grain. Ben Friesen, who farmed and ran a seed processing plant in southern Manitoba, quickly agreed.
“It was the right thing to do,” Friesen says. “We are farmers, we grow food. It’s part of our responsibility, our Christian faith, to share.”
In 1976, the MCC Food Bank became official, with Art DeFehr elected as chairman; the Canadian government agreed to match the value of donated grain three-to-one.
The first shipment of grain was sent to India in 1977, with more following in later years.
But the work of the breakfast group, and those who supported the MCC Food Bank, was far from over. Wieler says discussions soon began about asking other Canadian Christian denominations to join the effort.
“We said if we can get this thing working for the Mennonites, we can expand it,” he says. “We wanted these other people [denominations] to join us.”
MCC photo 1982.
In 1983 that vision became reality when four other churches joined, and the MCC Food Bank became Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Today there are 15 churches and church-based agencies working together to end global hunger. The Canadian government continues to provide matching funds; since its formation the Foodgrains Bank has provided more than $800 million worth of food, seeds and food related programs in more than 70 countries.
MCC photo/Alison Ralph
As they reflect back on those early days, Enns and Wieler are humble about their part in it all.
“I consider myself the midwife that helped bring this baby into the world,” Enns says. There was a lot of negotiation that went on [in Ottawa], and I was just in a good place to help make it happen.”
Wieler says it was prayer and faithfulness to God’s call to feed the hungry that motivated the breakfast group more than 40 years ago, and he sees God’s hand in everything that’s happened since.
“The good Lord was in this thing,” he says. “All those who supported this, and continue to do so, we realize there’s a mission for all of us who are so blessed.”