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John van Hengel Dies at 83; Founded 1st Food Bank in 1967

John van Hengel is shown in 2003 at St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix. The operation was the first of its kind when Mr. van Hengel opened it in 1967. In its first year, St. Mary's distributed more than 250,000 pounds of food to 36 charities.
John van Hengel is shown in 2003 at St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix. The operation was the first of its kind when Mr. van Hengel opened it in 1967. In its first year, St. Mary's distributed more than 250,000 pounds of food to 36 charities. (By Tom Tingle -- Arizona Republic Via Associated Press)

He tried unsuccessfully to persuade several religious and nonprofit organizations in Phoenix to start a warehouse food bank. Finally, a downtown Phoenix church gave him an abandoned bakery, and church members kicked in $3,000 for utility bills. St. Mary's Food Bank, which still operates, distributed more than 250,000 pounds of food to 36 charities in its first year.

Approached by federal anti-poverty agencies about forming a national food bank, Mr. van Hengel turned them down because he "didn't want the bureaucracy bothering it," he said.

But in 1975, he accepted a grant from the now-defunct Community Services Administration and set up 18 food banks. America's Second Harvest incorporated in 1976. The timing was auspicious, as the new Tax Reform Act gave corporations tax benefits if they donated inventory to charity. The donations poured in: 37 railroad carloads of discontinued cereal from Kellogg Co., 2.4 million quart bottles of discolored grapefruit juice from Beatrice Foods and countless others.

However, life wasn't finished knocking him around. In 1981, a federal study accused Mr. van Hengel of shoddy management and demanded his removal as executive director. An FBI investigation began. Mr. van Hengel was replaced by the man who headed the federal study team.

Even at the time, Mr. van Hengel conceded that he was not a natural manager but a grass-roots activist and entrepreneur. He spent the rest of his life creating food banks and food bank networks around the world.

"A good 1,000 food banks around the world came from that same man," Forney said. "The whole time I've known him, the past five years, he has had severe physical problems. . . . He was not an orator; he had great difficulty even speaking. He didn't have a silver spoon; he didn't have a grant from the Gates Foundation. He did this the American hard way."

In 1992, Mr. van Hengel received an America's Award, founded by Norman Vincent Peale and often described as "the Nobel Prize for goodness," at a Kennedy Center ceremony. He eventually reconciled with a reorganized America's Second Harvest board, which had moved the organization to Chicago.

Last year, the Phoenix food bank distributed about 60 million pounds of food, enough for 200,000 meals every day. America's Second Harvest supports about 50,000 charitable agencies operating more than 94,000 programs, including food pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and after-school programs.


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