Angel Food Ministries suspends food deliveries for September

9/09/2011 9:25:21 AM

Mack Cook Jr. has come to depend on the monthly boxes of food from Angel Food Ministries.

"My income is very, very limited," Cook, an Ellenwood retiree who is raising his three teenage grandchildren, said Wednesday. "It takes a lot to feed teenagers and my income wouldn't do it."

But this month Cook and others who rely on the food boxes from AFM may find themselves in a pinch.

The Monroe-based nonprofit, which has faced legal and financial problems in recent years, said Wednesday it is suspending its food distribution for September -- the first time in 17 years. It's unclear when distribution will resume.

Additionally, AFM said it laid off its full-time staff of 90 in Monroe, though many continue to work on a volunteer basis. It said unpaid senior management and ministers of outreach in 45 states continue to work.

"We would like to actively re-employ as many as possible when conditions permit," the nonprofit said in a statement.

AFM blamed the economy, rising food and fuel prices, declining sales and operational costs for the moves.

The nonprofit works through a network of about 5,000 churches and some community organizations across the nation. Food boxes are sold for up to half off what a customer might pay at regular retail prices. People can pay for the boxes through their churches, online or directly to AFM.

"We have every intention to continue offering great food at great prices in the coming months and are considering ways to reorganize or restructure our ministry," the nonprofit said in a statement. AFM said it was uncertain it could buy and deliver enough food to meet demand from customers at reasonable prices.

That's understandable, but it doesn't address immediate needs for people who get food, said Eleanor Perryman, host director for the AFM program at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta, which helps between 60 and 80 families a month.

"There are people who depend on these boxes," Perryman said. "I'm worried about what they will do now. If they have to buy the same food at a store it's going to cost a a lot more."

Items in a $35 box of food from AFM, she said, would cost at least $60 at a grocery store.

Cook, who runs a small lawn service, said his food box is donated by one of the ministries at Perryman's church.

Perryman said she hopes money can be raised to fill the gap until AFM begins distribution again. The nonprofit has promised full refunds to individuals who have already placed orders for September. Those who placed orders through churches should contact them for a refund.

"We sincerely believed that our product and price offerings could eventually rebuild sales volume that would produce positive operating income," AFM's statement said. "Therefore, we continued to serve the need, even those who live in areas that compromised our ability to operate profitably."

AFM said less than 1 percent of its revenues come from donations and about 92 percent of its revenues go directly to food programs.

Some area food banks said they don't know what spillover they might get from AFM suspending distribution this month. Jeri Barr, CEO of the Center for Family Resources in Cobb County, said food resources are already tight. "We don't have enough for folks already coming to our door. We can't keep food on the shelves."

AFM, which was formed in 1994 by Joseph Wingo and his wife, Linda, specializes in selling food cheaply to the poor and unemployed. In recent years, though, it has faced several challenges.

In 2009, the FBI searched its offices. A spokesman for AFM said it has cooperated fully with investigators for more than two years. The investigation is ongoing.

AFM spokesman Steve Savage said the investigation, "which has not led to any charges, has had a negative effect on our public perception, our relationship with some of our churches and customers, and also has caused AFM to incur considerable legal expense."

In 2009, according to the organization's IRS Form 990 filing, AFM paid Joseph Wingo $697,037. Linda Wingo, who was listed as a director and corporate secretary, was paid $100,480.

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