KAYSVILLE, Utah — A brown case of packaged spaghetti sits in Roberto Gaertner’s office at the Deseret Mill and Pasta Plant. Coming off the production line at 5:03 p.m. on Dec. 21, 2021, it marked the millionth case of food the plant produced last year, almost double what the plant produced in 2019, which was the last full year before pandemic disruptions.
Those 1 million cases are equivalent to 527,661,424 servings of food.
Nothing stops this work — not a pandemic, not global supply chain problems, not even a two-month upgrade that shut down part of the plant.
“Reaching a million is a huge accomplishment,” said Gaertner, the plant manager. He had set a goal for 951,600 cases in 2021, but when the plant officials started to realize they would exceed that, they began watching for the millionth case.
By Dec. 31, 2021, the plant had produced 1,014,933 cases of more than 30 products to be sent to the Bishops’ Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City. In turn, that food is sent around the world for humanitarian needs, food bank donations or home food storage.
Read more: A look at how the Church’s wheat supply is providing food for humanitarian efforts and home storage
How the plant works
Wheat and other food processed at this nearly 86,000-square-foot facility come from Church farms and vendors in the United States. The facility packages flour, oats, rice, beans, cake and pancake mixes, macaroni, macaroni and cheese, ribbon pasta and spaghetti.
On Friday, Jan. 7, production master and miller Richard Heiner showed the Church News how the mill grinds and refines wheat into different products. The plant uses special processes to make sure nothing is wasted.
Arriving on wheat trucks, the grain is cleaned and put into big bins. It’s then sucked up through pipes to a big sifter, separated and sent down to different mill machines. Along the way, some can be routed to become hot-cereal products, while the rest is refined even more into flour.
Once the flour is ground, refined and quality-checked, the flour moves on to the next room to be packaged into 10-pound bags. The machines can normally do 160 pounds of flour a minute.
“Last year, we did 20 million pounds of wheat, and usually it is 15 million, so it is incredible,” said Gaertner.
Oats are in the next room. Empty cans roll into one machine at an average rate of 65 cans per minute. Each can pauses to receive an allotment of oats from above, and then rolls into another area where the lids and labels go on. Then the lines of cans march on their way on a belt to the next room, where volunteers take them as they come up the conveyer belt and put them into the marked boxes, before sending the boxes or cases along the next belt. One case goes up the belt every four seconds.
“The volunteers will be stacking like crazy, and they’ll do a pallet every eight minutes,” production supervisor Kelly Bingham explained over the noise.
The plant cannot do pasta and flour at the same time, so they alternate months. Pasta production happened in December, and it goes fast, which is why Bingham believes spaghetti was the millionth case produced. The pasta production line will start up again in February. Bingham showed how the machines cut the spaghetti into 10-inch strands, square up the noodles and lay them flat for packaging, then weigh the bundles evenly.
The machines can do 115 bags of spaghetti a minute. “It’s crazy to watch,” said Bingham.
Volunteers in a pandemic
The plant has some full-time employees, but volunteers and missionaries are who really make the difference, said Bingham.
The plant uses roughly 60 volunteers a day, in four-hour shifts. The volunteers come from 51 surrounding stakes in northern Utah. Service missionaries, senior service missionaries and full-time missionaries from the Utah Layton Mission also have shifts.
“There has not been one day since the pandemic started that we didn’t have volunteers,” said Gaertner. “They want to serve, they want to help. People know what is really important in life.”
Marisa Wall, the Relief Society president in the Lakeview Ward of the Bountiful Utah Central Stake, volunteered for a four-hour shift on Friday, Jan. 7.
She received safety and hygiene training first and then helped with the flour packaging. She and fellow ward members stood by a conveyer belt, taking the sacks of flour as they came by and putting them into cases.
“We talked about the flour, what a staple of life it is, and how meaningful it is to be a part of that for someone else,” Wall said. “We were talking about flour and the bread of life, and how we are in a Christ-like type situation here, which is very meaningful and sweet.”
Wall hopes others will take the time to fill a service assignment. “When you come, you leave a better person. You leave knowing that what you did made a difference for someone. It is worth the time, it’s worth the sacrifice,” she said.
Christopher Lewis started working on call at the mill in 2005 and is now a production supervisor who runs the mill side of the operation.
He said it is a unique experience to volunteer at the Church welfare facilities. “You can’t just go into any production facility and work on a line. But you can come here and work on any of eight lines and you feel a sense of accomplishment — we put out 100,000 servings of food today, and I took part in that,” Lewis said. “It’s a blessing to see how many people you can feed and with the little amount of work that you have to do.”
Faith through the challenges
Lewis said that for two months in 2021, his area was down for a major electrical upgrade. Even with that closure, the plant still produced 1 million cases of food.
“It’s pretty spectacular for the time we had to accomplish it in, and all the challenges we had,” said Lewis.
For example, the plant needs 40 truckloads of cans a month. But at one point, the supplier could only provide four or five. The plant also uses up to 250 wood pallets every day, but the cost of that wood went way up last year. It used to be $8 a pallet, but now it is $19 a pallet. The plant must use new pallets to follow Food and Drug Administration guidance. So Gaertner had to find new ways to get what they needed. He learned to be innovative and creative and do things differently to adapt.
Gaertner said the production milestone was so important to everyone at the plant, because after these challenges — world supply chain, the pandemic, the plant under major upgrade for two months — they all decided to do their best with faith. “It requires action and love for what we do,” he explained.
And faith is behind everything they do. The building is a dedicated building, and the name of the Church is the first thing that can be seen when driving into the parking lot off of I-15. Pictures of Jesus Christ hang in the hallways.
“There’s no way we could do what we do without divine help,” Bingham said. “It takes the heart of the volunteers and the spirit of the missionaries to bring in the spirit that makes this place function and to accomplish the work.”
Read more: How ‘heaven’s windows’ are opening to quench drought-parched Church welfare farms/ranches
Givers and receivers
The noise and hustle and bustle of the plant, the new volunteers to train every few hours, and the deadlines and goals and challenges are all a part of a sacred work, said Lewis.
“The purpose of our work is to help others in need. We are looking to put food on people’s table that don’t have that,” Lewis said.
Bingham said as a production supervisor he is doing more than just a job. He is helping the volunteers have a good spiritual experience and helping those he will never meet get a spiritual gift in addition to the temporal gift of food.
“They don’t know who is giving it to them, and we don’t know the receivers, but it means enough to them and us,” said Bingham. “We have the temples that are made for the blessing of eternal salvation, and then we have this, which is a temporal temple. If we can’t take care of their needs now, they won’t be ready to go to the temple. Christ fed people physically before spiritually.”
The need grew during the pandemic. Gaertner said the Church used to donate five truckloads a week to food banks or other humanitarian causes. And now the Church is doing 20 truckloads a week throughout the U.S. and Canada. The products are also sold in the home storage centers in the bishops’ storehouses around the country. The food produced in this plant could go to a family in need in Utah, another state or even another country.
“Every time we have a disaster, like the fires in California and Colorado, or the tornadoes in the Midwest and South, then we get a phone call to make more food,” said Gaertner. “And we are ready. We know the capacity we can run, we know our limitations, we just wait for the word.”
Gaertner shared a story from early 2020, when most things were shut down for the pandemic. But the plant is considered an essential business and continued to operate. And a woman was singing as she worked her volunteer shift. She told Gaertner, “I cannot go to Church, temples are closed, and this is the only place close to the Savior where I can go and serve.”
‘That nothing be lost’
Bingham said the plant not only follows FDA guidance but also the Church welfare system’s own high standards. Bingham wants to give the best to everyone, because if someone is already down on their luck, they shouldn’t be given something that is only second best.
“We have to remember who we are serving, and what He would do. We have to remember how He serves,” said Bingham.
A scripture Gaertner shares with the staff says, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” referring to Matthew 25:40.
Recently, Gaertner said supervisors noticed a case of pasta wasn’t 100% quality. The machine had had to turn off and on again when the city of Kaysville, Utah, lost power, and so some of the spaghetti dried out in spots. Rather than package and send on a lower-quality product, Bingham said the plant gave that pasta to a local pig farmer who was able to feed his pigs. This way it did not waste.
The supervisors are also careful to watch the processes from top to bottom, to make sure no product is wasted throughout the production lines. Gaertner explained that in John 6:5-14, when Jesus Christ multiplied the bread and fishes to feed the 5,000, He gave them the best, and then gathered up the leftovers — “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost,” it says, and at the end the disciples gathered 12 baskets.
Gaertner shared a note that was sent in from a 9-year-old girl. “Dear bishops’ storehouse,” the note reads, “Thank you a million times over for the amazing food. My family and I appreciate it so much, we love you to death.”
That note means everything to Gaertner. “This is why we do what we do,” he said. “This is essential business, but we are happy to be a part of essential business. We need to be here.”