Service under fire

Ministry's work still in demand despite turmoil

 

 

Kelly Hernandez feeds five boys -- ages 8, 7, 5, 4 and 3 -- on a box of food she picks up each month at an Angel Food Ministries distribution site.

Hernandez, 28, is a single mom on a fixed income living in Hephzibah.

"At the end of the month, we're struggling. When we get a box, we're relieved," she said. "The meat, the vegetables, they're all provided. I don't have to go to the grocery store. I don't have to get a sitter."

Hernandez says she has better things to worry about than the troubles of Angel Food Ministries, a Georgia nonprofit that has, since 2009, endured a lawsuit, a federal investigation and controversy over legislation introduced by one of its employees, a state representative.

"I skipped one month, and my whole house went into chaos," Hernandez said. "I don't care what their deal is."

Angel Food Ministries sells $140 million of deeply discounted food a year to a national network of churches, including more than 30 in Augusta, Evans, Thomson, Aiken and Edgefield.

The ministry is based in a 160,000-square-foot warehouse in Monroe, Ga., which distributes the food to 5,200 locations in 44 states.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation searched the offices in February 2009. FBI Special Agent Stephen Emmett declined to comment on the investigation.

Angel Food Ministries also spent months in 2009 resolving a lawsuit brought by two board members, who alleged that Angel Food's founding family was profiting at the ministry's expense. They claimed founder Joe Wingo and his family, including his wife, sons and daughter-in-law, took trips in the Angel Food jet and used company credit cards for personal purchases.

In a court-supervised settlement, the two board members agreed to leave the nonprofit, and Angel Food promised changes. The lawsuit, Angel Food said in a statement at the time, was "nothing more than a distraction" and a "power grab," and business hasn't suffered since.

Juda Engelmayer, Angel Food's director of media and communications and customer care, says he has no reason to think the lawsuit or investigation has hurt the ministry's standing in the eyes of the people who matter most.

"Do we have a good reputation in the eyes of the government? No, we don't," he said. "But our clientele are the people who are buying food, not legislators or the media. We'd love to be loved by politicians, but we're not seeking their approval. We've done nothing wrong."

Angel Food seems to function the way a 501(c)(3) should, said Darryll Jones, the associate dean of research and faculty development at Florida A&M University College of Law. He blogs about nonprofit law at lawprofessors.typepad.com.

"To the extent that they provide something indispensable to living at a low cost, it's certainly charitable." But, he said, "It's not about what they're doing. It's how they were compensating their insiders. They were getting rich. There was a real concern that Angel Food would morph into a business. You can be doing something really great and if the community sees one or two people getting rich off it, it casts a pall on the whole nonprofit."

Though local churches were aware of the problems, Kelly Brown says it has never affected the day-to-day operations of the Angel Food ministry at her church, New Life Christian Center Church.

"We've been in touch with the corporate office," she said. "But all that is invisible to our community. They don't see it. They see provision, an opportunity, really, to feed their families."

Once a month, Brown coordinates Angel Food pickups at the church's ministry building on Gordon Highway. The church also uses the building for job placement and GED programs.

"Angel Food is a part of that, an extension of the life-skills ministry we provide," said Brown, who organizes the distribution of about 50 boxes of food each month. She has volunteered with Angel Food since 2007.

"I saw the purpose. I saw the mission. We have an opportunity to reach people who are hungry and just need a little help," she said. "It's given us an outreach into the community. A lot of folks placing orders don't necessarily go to the church, or necessarily church at all."

BROWN SAYS THE NEED for Angel Food has picked up since last year, about the time the lawsuit resolved. She says that's likely because Angel Food launched online ordering, and so many families were hurting in the recession.

Robert Steudle, a volunteer with the ministry, likens the operation to a grocery store with far fewer choices and far better prices.

"Angel Food provides a way for so many families," he said. "I broke it down in my head. It's really a good deal. I did the math, and it's a bargain."

About 90 percent of the food is in freezers on site until Steudle and a few other volunteers box it and carry it to recipients. Other volunteers offer to pray with them.

The ministry is faith-based, and each box of food includes a magazine with "inspiring articles," Engelmayer said, but he adds, "Our mission is not to proselytize. Our mission is to feed."

FINANCIALLY, ANGEL FOOD is unlike other ministries, and that has caught the attention of charity-watch organizations. One, Wall Watchers, included Angel Food in a donor alert. Another, Charity Navigator, said Angel Food has an unusual structure for a nonprofit.

"It's so unusual that we don't even rate them," said Sandra Miniutti, a vice president.

Angel Food responds that it's not really a charity, but a ministry, Engelmayer said.

"We don't have tithing. There are no donations. There are no big-ticket dinners. That's not how we operate," he said. "We're so unique that people don't understand."

Angel Food could have decentralized its operations as the ministry grew to avoid these conflicts, said Jones, the nonprofit lawyer.

"They need checks and balances. They need to disperse the governing authority among more people," he said. "Otherwise it becomes somebody's baby and it becomes somebody's personal business instead of representative of the community."

Though Angel Food doesn't accept donations, it does rely on volunteer labor, Jones said.

SUE BACINO's church doesn't move as many Angel Food boxes as it used to, but monthly pickups still require a small army of volunteers.

First Church of the Nazarene on Lumpkin Road started Angel Food in 2004. It grew to distribute about 80 boxes a month but now orders about 15 a month.

The ministry's problems have never been much cause for concern, though Bacino says, ideally, Angel Food would have never been wrapped up in an investigation or lawsuit.

"We still get our food and we're still able to serve the community," she said. "That's what's important. That's why we're in this."

How does it work?

Angel Food is able to distribute food cheaply because it buys in large volumes. Frozen hamburgers, for example, are vacuum-sealed at headquarters and trucked to distribution sites across the country. Churches pick up the food from those sites and assemble the boxes.

A standard box costs $30, but Angel Food also sells vegetable and fruit boxes, extra meat or seafood boxes, premade meals for seniors, and allergen-free shares. Angel Food packs food it bought for $25 into every standard box. The contents would cost about $65 at the grocery store, according to the ministry.

A dollar from each box is given to the host site. The remainder pays for staff, offices, distribution and the next month's food.

WHO CAN ORDER?

Anyone can place an order, though the ministry was founded to serve families that are struggling. The Wingos started Angel Food in 1994 to help families at the closing of factories in Monroe, Ga.

There are no qualifications, minimums, income restrictions or applications. Orders are handled by churches early in the month. Most local churches distribute Angel Food boxes on the third Saturday of the month.

Learn More

Read more and get a map of distribution sites at www.angelfoodministries.com.

What's in a $30 box?

Last month, a $30 box from Angel Food Ministries bought:

- 2 pounds chopped beef steaks flavored with Dijon mustard

- 1 pound bacon-wrapped turkey breast filet mignon

- 1 pound boneless center cut pork chops

- 2 pounds macaroni & beef dinner entrée

- 2 1/2 pounds split chicken breasts

- 1 pound lean ground beef

- 12-inch supreme pizza

- 1 pound frozen peas & carrots

- 1 pound frozen whole kernel corn

- 2 pounds fresh apples

- 2 pounds heat-and-serve broccoli-and-cheese soup

- 24-ounce natural-cut french fries

- 6 1/2-ounce stroganoff skillet meal

- 1 pound rice

- Dozen eggs

- Dessert