Tuesday, June 2, 2009

''The poor we shall always have with us. But why the hungry?''

This is an obituary of John van Hengel. A compassionate man who should never be forgotten and a name to know and respect. John van Hengel is my hero. Give it five minutes of your time. I'm sure you'll love the story. As published in the New York Times on October 8, 2005.

October 8, 2005
John van Hengel, 83, Dies; Set Up First Food Bank in U.S.

John van Hengel, who set up the nation's first food bank, in Phoenix, to distribute unmarketable food to the hungry and then a national organization, Second Harvest, to spread the concept, died Wednesday at a hospice in Phoenix. He was 83.

Cynde Cerf, spokeswoman for St. Mary's Food Bank, Mr. van Hengel's initial enterprise, said Mr. van Hengel had had several strokes and Parkinson's disease. Second Harvest grew into one of the nation's largest and most respected nonprofit organizations, and last year distributed nearly two billion pounds of food to more than 50,000 local charitable agencies. These, in turn, operate 94,000 programs, including soup kitchens, pantries and after-school programs that provide emergency food assistance to 23 million Americans each year.

The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 10 percent of Americans rely on this nonprofit distribution chain for their nutritional needs. The idea is simple: much edible food that is wasted can be collected and redirected to feed the hungry.

A central depository, or food bank, makes the task doable. One measurement of Second Harvest's effectiveness is Forbes magazine's calculation that 98 percent of all product and financial donations go to hungry people, not administration or fund-raising.

In Phoenix in the 1960's after a divorce and other personal problems, Mr. van Hengel was struggling to rebuild his life. One day in 1967, he found himself conversing with a woman who had 10 children and a husband on death row. For all her hardships, she said food was no problem.

As Mr. van Hengel later recounted, the woman explained that she shopped in refuse bins at the rear of a nearby grocery store. Mr. van Hengel went to the bins and found frozen food that was still frozen and edible, loose carrots and stale bread.

''The woman had healthy kids who obviously didn't eat bad at all,'' he said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1992.

Mr. van Hengel then visited the store manager and in a back room found other things being thrown out. A case of ketchup with one broken bottle was tossed. So were cans with dents.

Mr. van Hengel, who had recently been moved by a documentary about hunger in Africa, asked if he could have the discarded items. The answer was yes, as it was with other stores.

A man searching for purpose had found one.

''It's amazing how many people are being fed because of this crazy little thing we started,'' Mr. van Hengel told The Times. (His ''we'' referred to a grandmother and two disabled volunteers, then his only helpers.)

''We're feeding millions, and it's not costing anyone anything,'' he continued. ''But it scares me to look back because I just had no idea it would grow into this.''

John van Hengel was born in Waupun, Wis., the son of a nurse and the town's pharmacist. After graduating from Lawrence College with a government degree, he moved to Southern California and became a self-described ''first-rate beach bum.''

He grew more focused, and studied broadcasting at the University of California, Los Angeles. His jobs included driving a beer truck in Beverly Hills, designing plastic rainwear, being a sales manager for an archery company and working as a magazine publicist.

He married a model, and when she divorced him in 1960, he felt crushed. He returned to Wisconsin, where he worked in a limestone quarry for $1.50 an hour. His legs were partly paralyzed in a barroom fight, and a doctor sent him to neurology hospital in Phoenix.

A lifelong Roman Catholic, he got a job at the Immaculate Heart Church in Phoenix driving the bus, coaching sports and helping out in the busy soup kitchen. On his own, he bought a broken-down milk truck to pick up surplus citrus fruit to give to charity missions.

The parish council of St. Mary's Church gave him an abandoned bakery to store his citrus, as well as $3,000. When he met the women who shopped in supermarket trash, he already had the beginnings of an infrastructure.

That woman came up with the name ''food bank.'' The first year, Mr. van Hengel, who outfitted himself at thrift shops, and his three helpers at St. Mary's collected and distributed 250,000 pounds of food. Soon, they had enlisted manufacturers and wholesalers and were handling things like 200 semitruckloads of surplus grapefruit juice.

In 1971, they started giving out Emergency Food Boxes, which contained balanced foods for nine meals for families who ran out of food between paychecks.

Five years later, Mr. van Hengel established Second Harvest with a federal grant. The name came from the biblical story of Ruth, who gleaned grain left by reapers.

In 1983, Mr. van Hengel left Second Harvest to spread food-banking to Canada and Europe. Three years later, he set up a food-bank consulting firm, devoting more and more of his time to initiatives in South America and Africa, where hunger had first alarmed him.

Mr. van Hengel is survived by two sons, Thomas, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and John, of Kansas City, Kan.

Drawing on Jesus' words about the poor, the motto of Mr. van Hengel's initial soup kitchen sums up his life's mission: ''The poor we shall always have with us. But why the hungry?''


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