John van Hengel, 83, a soup-kitchen volunteer who founded the first food bank in 1967 with a truckload of produce gleaned from Arizona farm fields and citrus groves, died Oct. 5 at a hospice in Phoenix. He had Parkinson's disease.
His idea grew into a nationwide network of food banks that converts food industry leftovers into meals for the poor. That network, America's Second Harvest, distributes 2 billion pounds of groceries that feed 23 million Americans every year. In the past several years, Mr. van Hengel helped start food banks in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Soup kitchens and community food pantries have existed for more than a century, but the idea of a food bank took those modest local efforts and made them bigger and more reliable.
Mr. van Hengel credited his seminal idea to a woman with 10 children and a husband on death row. She rummaged for food in refuse bins behind grocery stores and suggested that what was really needed was a place to both deposit food and check it out -- like a bank.
At the time, Mr. van Hengel was barely more than indigent himself. His clothes came from the Salvation Army; he ate at the soup kitchen where he volunteered; and his home was an apartment above a garage. "At 44, I was the oldest public pools lifeguard in Phoenix," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992.
"He's an ordinary man, complete with vices and sins and mistakes and all the other things all of us possess," Robert Forney, president and chief executive of America's Second Harvest, said yesterday. "He discovered how to tie together the public and private sectors in a common, aligned battle against hunger."
The key was creating a distribution network that convinced corporations that their donated food would be safely handled and would not be resold, Forney said. In addition, businesses were able to cut the costs of disposing or storing unusable food, take a tax break and satisfy multiple charities through a single point of contact.
Born in Waupun, Wis., Mr. van Hengel graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. He attended the University of Wisconsin graduate school but left for Southern California before earning a degree. He called himself a "first-rate beach bum," although he eventually went back to school at UCLA to study broadcasting.
He worked as a magazine publicist, an advertising man, a designer of plastic rainwear, a restaurant maitre d' and a beer-truck driver in Hollywood, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. He married a model and became a division sales manager for a manufacturer of archery gear. In 1960, his marriage to Beverlee Thompson ended in divorce, and he headed back to Wisconsin. She survives him, as do two sons, John van Hengel of Kansas City, Kan., and Thomas van Hengel of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Mr. van Hengel went to work in a rock quarry, got into a fight at a factory and had spinal surgery that left him with a locked neck, palsy and bad legs. Hoping to improve his health in a warm, dry climate, he moved to Arizona and began swimming laps at a YMCA and reading the Bible.
Working at a soup kitchen in Phoenix, Mr. van Hengel met the mother of 10 and searched in supermarket refuse bins himself. Finding edible, if not salable, food, he persuaded a grocery store manager, and then the manager's boss, to donate surplus food. Soon he and his helpers had more food than they could use. The excess went to missions, alcoholism treatment centers and abused women's shelters.
"It got to the point where we were getting so much that it was killing me because I was having to deliver the produce in the evening after we finished picking it," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1988.
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.