Robin Hood of Food

Douglas TowneMarch 26, 2018
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When John van Hengel founded St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix in 1967, he started a global revolution in food distribution.

A food revolution occurred in Phoenix 50 years ago, the impact of which would reverberate across the nation and around the globe. This innovation didn’t feature artisanal ingredients or fusion cuisine, but rather irregular produce, dented cans and other grocery-store castoffs.

John van Hengel, a St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen volunteer, imagined this less-than-perfect food as a resource for the hungry. He conceived of a centralized place where charitable groups could draw on donated food to feed those in need. In 1967, Van Hengel founded St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix, which drew donations from supermarkets, food manufacturers, farmers, restaurants and homeowners, who provided salvageable food including odd-size produce, goods that were outdated, mislabeled or had damaged packaging, and manufacturing mistakes like french fries that had been cut too thin, that added up to 250,000 pounds of food after a year of operation. The idea went viral, spreading to almost 800 food banks serving 32 countries, currently. While there had long been charities that gathered food donations to create soup kitchens for the needy, food banks allowed food surpluses to be gathered on a much greater scale in a warehouse-size building. Food banks were a simple, one-stop donation clearinghouse for grocers and food manufacturers to send their castoffs, instead of dealing with a multitude of charities. Food banks became the middleman in food distribution, passing along donated goods free of charge to participating non-profit organizations. Van Hengel became known as the “Father of Food Banking.”

The first location of St. Mary’s Food Bank; photo courtesy St. Mary’s Food BankHis early life gave few indications that he would become a game-changer in food distribution. It took a midlife epiphany and a subsequent vow of poverty before van Hengel formulated the concept that, more than Julia Child or Gordon Ramsay, altered what appeared on dinner plates around the world.

The Wisconsin native graduated from Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1944 and moved to Southern California. He became a merchandising executive and married a department store model, with whom he had two sons. “I was holding down an executive job, living high, when suddenly I was a divorced man,” van Hengel told The Arizona Republic in 1974. “I had nothing to work for anymore.” After his divorce in 1960, van Hengel returned to Wisconsin and got a job at a stone quarry. “I needed that hard, physical labor to calm my nerves. Then I had an accident, which left me temporarily paralyzed.” He’d injured his back while breaking up a fight between coworkers. “Believe it or not, that was good for me. It made me think twice about what I was doing. I decided to devote myself to something important.”

His doctor suggested relocating to a dry climate for rehabilitation, so van Hengel moved to Phoenix in 1961. A devout Catholic, he immersed himself in charity work, driving church buses and feeding the hungry at St. Vincent de Paul. To supplement the food at the mission’s dining room, van Hengel bought a used milk delivery truck for $150 and collected unwanted produce from local homes and farms. His harvest soon exceeded St. Vincent de Paul’s needs, and he distributed the excess food to other charities.

Van Hengel then had an epiphany. “I envisioned a warehouse where I could store salvaged and agricultural surplus food, with an orderly and fair distribution to the poor,” he told the Republic in 1983. “I went to St. Mary’s Church and asked them to sponsor it. Within three days, the pastor got us a building, and we were in business.”

St. Mary’s Food Bank opened in a former bakery on South Central Avenue in 1967. In addition to produce, the facility became a clearinghouse for supermarket discards, like old bread and misshapen produce, an idea van Hengel gained from a mother of 10 who fed her children from a grocery store’s dumpster. Within its first year, St. Mary’s distributed food to 36 charities.

One of the food bank’s first volunteers was 13-year-old Stephen Morris, whose mother worked with van Hengel’s girlfriend, Annie Noyes. “John was a funny guy. Kids loved him,” Morris says. The experience inspired Morris to push a grocery cart around his neighborhood asking for food donations. “It took two trips in the family station wagon to haul what I had collected to the food bank,” he says.

During his first decade at St. Mary’s Food Bank, van Hengel did not collect a salary as the organization’s “nonexecutive” director. He supported himself with money he saved from his lucrative business career. “My expenditures were under $3,000 a year,” he told the Republic in 1987.

“John was a very humble man,” Claudia Cucitro, a fundraiser for the nonprofit since 1996, says. “But if he needed to advocate for something, his personality quickly went from being a lamb to a lion.”

van Hengel shows off a birthday present in 1978; photo courtesy Dennis SullivanVan Hengel eschewed long meetings and forbade St. Mary’s workers from soliciting money. “We need it [money], but I’m so tired of people being badgered by charities that we’re not going to degrade ourselves by doing it,” he told the Republic in 1971. He declined government assistance to avoid bureaucracy. “If there were government funds to rely on, we might lose the personal involvement that really makes the whole thing tick,” he told the Republic in 1980.

Despite the success of St. Mary’s, van Hengel faced challenges, such as when the freezer broke, and ice cream oozed out the door and covered the floor. “I’d gladly have handed the keys to this place to anyone who wanted it,” he told the Republic afterward in 1974.

He led a simple life, subsisting on groceries that came from the food bank, living in a donated apartment above a garage, and sporting secondhand clothes. Van Hengel hadn’t purchased clothing in six years and never ate out, according to a Republic article in 1974.

“John was a generous and gentle man who wore comfortable white loafers,” says Dennis Sullivan, a Phoenix native whose father became friends with van Hengel at a Catholic Cursillo retreat. “When they got especially dirty, he would apply a fresh coat of white house paint.”

Van Hengel became a regular at Sullivan family meals, and was the only person allowed to smoke in their house. “Dinner was often served in two big, yellow, enamel [and] cast iron pots,” Sullivan says of supper with his parents, nine siblings and van Hengel. “He would bring expired bread that he had collected from stores. My favorite was the raisin bread, a treat we never bought.”

For fun, van Hengel visited a pub weekly and went to horse and dog tracks. “John often had his racing sheets when he visited,” Sullivan says. “He entertained us with stories of the trifecta that he just missed.” He went to the tracks with the head of St. Mary’s Catholic High School, who had a “gift” for calling races. Winnings were donated to charity.

Van Hengel organized other food banks around Arizona and eventually took the movement national when he started Second Harvest in 1976. Second Harvest, which facilitated food banks receiving donated goods, had more than 180 members when van Hengel returned to St. Mary’s in 1983. The following year, he founded Food Banking Inc., a nonprofit consulting firm that expanded food banks overseas.

Unassuming to the end, van Hengel worked at St. Mary’s until he died at the age of 82 in 2005. “John didn’t care about getting credit for things,” Morris, a former journalist, says. “I wanted to write a book about him, but he wasn’t interested.” Van Hengel modestly reflected on his work in 1987: “I’d be a fool if I pretended to have any great vision,” he told the Republic. “I just planted a seed and water came from a hundred directions.”

Others, however, recognized van Hengel’s impact. “John changed the world,” Terry Shannon, director of the St. Mary’s Westside Food Bank Alliance, wrote in a 2005 tribute. “He created this wonderful, simple, brilliant concept of food banking and he touched millions. What a legacy!”

Van Hengel was the recipient of numerous honors, including an America’s Award, often described as “the Nobel Prize for goodness,” in 1992. There was only one accolade, however, that he savored, the nickname his St. Mary’s Food Bank coworkers gave him: “the Mother Teresa of celery.”

Of the many groceries donated to St. Mary’s Food Bank, there have been TV dinners with bent aluminum trays, mislabeled canned goods, bags leaking rice and sugar, and some with more memorable quirks:

60 chickens
The food bank was expecting the frozen variety, but these were very much alive.

37 railroad cars of raisin cereal
The manufacturer added too many raisins.

A “tremendous quantity” of fudge sauce
The manufacturer forgot to add sugar.

143 cases of anchovies
The food bank had to solicit recipe ideas.

2.4 million bottles of grapefruit juice
The contents were discolored.

1 million marshmallow bunnies
Unsold Easter items.

19 semi-trailers of trout stuffed with crab
Labeled “Golden Trout,” it didn’t sell because customers thought it was carp.

75,000 cases of miller beer
The food bank declined this donation that undoubtedly would have proved popular. The brewery accidentally under-filled the cans.

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