Angel Food Ministries shuts down; no more providing food for needy

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 22, 2011

Staff and wire reports
SALISBURY ó For local families relying on a national ministry to put food in their pantries, the Rev. Joe Thomas said Saturday ěis going to be a bad day for a lot of people.î
Many were expecting a delivery this weekend, said Thomas, pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Salisbury. Thatís one of a number of local churches that worked over the years with Angel Food Ministries to help Rowan County residents, many of whom depended on its low-cost groceries to feed their families.
Georgia-based Angel Food Ministries announced this week it is going out of business after 17 years of providing discounted groceries to needy people across the country, citing the economic downturn affecting many of the organizationís customers as its downfall.
The multimillion dollar food nonprofit said it was ceasing operations immediately.
ěAngel Food has not been immune from the same economic and market conditions that led to the loss of other food ministries,î the ministry said in a statement to the Associated Press.
The increased price of fuel and food, along with a growing number of customers who were unable to pay, contributed to a decline in sales, the ministry said. In the span of four years, organizers said, Angel Foodís orders decreased from about 550,000 boxes a month to about 125,000 boxes a month.
ěWe realize the pressure that this places on our host sites, community food banks and customers,î the ministry said in its statement. ěWe at Angel Food Ministries are truly heartbroken to have to cease operations but it has not compromised our faith in God or our commitment to helping those in need.î
Thomas, of Franklin Baptist, said Thursday he had just learned the ministry was shutting down. He was told last week that it wouldnít be able to make shipments in September or November due to rising trucking costs.
ěWhat we heard was they were having shipping issues … and they were trying to get it worked out,î he said.
It wasnít the first sign of trouble with the ministry. As many as 80 families had at one time gotten groceries at Franklin Baptist through the Angel Food program, but with delayed and spotty delivery recently, that number had decreased to about 15, said Sandi Hache, who ran the Angel Food ministry for Franklin Baptist.
ěI hate it, because some of the folks relied on that food,î she said. ěThatís how they bought their groceries.î
Angel Food was started in 1994 by pastors Joe and Linda Wingo with 34 families in Monroe, Ga. At its height, the organization grew through a network of more than 5,000 churches to feed more than 500,000 families a month in 45 states.
There was no income requirement to participate, but the program was aimed at families in need. Typically, people could place orders of multi-meal boxes of meat, vegetables, fruit and other staples from a menu that varied monthly. A box would feed a family of four for about a week. The food cost between 30 and 50 percent less than what they would typically pay at a grocery store.
Angel Food was also a windfall for participating churches. For every box delivered, churches received $1 from the nonprofit. Thomas said people who picked up food at Franklin Baptist ordered it on Angel Foodís website, so if the church got any money, that was put into its missions fund and often used it to buy extra boxes of groceries for people who couldnít afford them.
In Wednesdayís statement, Angel Food said it has returned about $24 million to partner organizations, including full refunds to most of its customers for scheduled September deliveries.
The ministry ran into trouble in 2009 when the FBI searched its offices and questions were raised about Angel Foodís finances. Board members and former employers also filed a lawsuit accusing the leadership of using the nonprofit as a moneymaking venture.
The lawsuit was settled in 2009 with an exchange of money and promises to make changes to protect the charityís finances. Angel Food spokesman Steve Savage said no charges were ever filed in the FBI investigation.
The Wingos and one of their sons were on staff at Angel Food. According to tax records, Joe Wingoís reported salary in 2009 was more than $694,000.
Sloan Lake Community Church on Old Concord Road had served as the largest distribution point in North Carolina for Angel Food groceries. In 2006, the Post visited the church on a Saturday when organizers expected to fill nearly 1,000 orders.
But Associate Pastor Tom Shelton said the church ended its affiliation with the ministry a couple of years ago.
ěIt just got to be more about money for them rather than helping our community, so we pulled out and have just been looking at other avenues to help the community as far as giving food and clothing out,î he said. ěWe just felt like they werenít serving our communityís best interests.î
Shelton said the church is still giving away food when it can, but it hasnít found anything to replace the volume possible with Angel Foodís monthly distributions.
Last week, the Census Bureau released new figures showing that nearly one in six Americans lives in poverty ó a record 46.2 million people. For some of those living in Rowan County, thereís one less place to turn for help.
ěThis was a quality product that was affordable to a lot of people,î said Thomas, the Franklin Baptist pastor. And he said thereís no clear alternative to take its place. ěThatís going to make it tough for a lot of people.î