Angel Food Ministries closes, citing poor economy

Angel Food Ministries, a discount food program that partners with dozens of churches around Tampa Bay, has announced that the economic downturn is forcing it to close after 17 years.

The decision comes two weeks after the nonprofit laid off all 90 full-time employees at its Georgia headquarters and canceled September deliveries. Officials said then that they were restructuring the program and hoped to resume operations.

However, in a statement released Wednesday, officials said they hadn't found a solution that would allow them to resume food distribution.

"We realize the pressure that this places on our host sites, community food banks and customers," the statement said. "There is a group of former employees and food vendors that are working to find a better way of serving those who have come to depend on Angel Food."

Wednesday's statement did not mention the legal troubles Angel Food has faced in recent years, though a spokesman earlier this month said that neither a pending FBI investigation nor ongoing lawsuits were factors in what was thought to be a temporary suspension of service.

The shutdown is the latest to plague area bargain shoppers, who also saw Tampa's Share Florida Food Network close in December after 20 years.

Angel Food, which partnered with 5,000 churches, schools and host sites across the country to distribute meats, dairy and other food at low prices, had at least 34 distribution sites across Tampa Bay — 15 in Pinellas County, 11 in Hillsborough and eight in Pasco.

Angel Food had said it could afford to offer groceries at as much as half the cost of stores by buying in bulk, eliminating advertising and packaging fees, and relying on volunteers.

But recently the nonprofit said it was struggling in the face of rising costs for fuel, food and operations, and declining sales.

Thomas Almond, pastor of Nature Coast Family Fellowship in Hudson and Angel Food's minister of outreach for the seven-county Tampa Bay area, said this region sold roughly 2,000 boxes of food a month. For many folks, he said, the program prevented them from having to choose between food and medicine.

"Most people who come into our church have no idea what they're going to do next," he said.

Janice Naylor, host site coordinator for Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park, said the closure will affect about 500 people in her area alone. She said Calvary Chapel, which partnered with Angel Food for five years, also distributed food to partner churches.

Naylor said she had just received an e-mail Wednesday morning from Angel Food encouraging people to "be patient" and "look forward to some new and exciting things," including holiday food packages.

So, like Almond, she was stunned when a reporter informed her Wednesday evening that the program had closed for good. "I'm shocked and devastated because it helped so many people," said Naylor, who said she's been fielding phone calls from people who relied on the program, "especially shut-ins and elderly people that we deliver to."

Some folks have told her they've turned to Aldi. Others might try Save-a-Lot, she said.

However, the closure is already taking its toll on local food banks.

At F.E.A.S.T. Food Pantry in Palm Harbor, executive director Walt Anderson said they've seen an influx of families coming in as the economy worsened. And within the past couple of weeks, "we're getting people who come in and say they used to get food from Angel Food Ministries, so can they get food (from F.E.A.S.T.) three times a month instead of two," he said.

However, there have long been signs of trouble for Angel Food.

Since 2009, the nonprofit has been the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation as well as a lawsuit filed by board members alleging Angel Food's leaders used it as a moneymaking venture, according to media reports.

Angel Food abruptly shut down its Facebook page over the weekend. The site swirled with rumors reported by Atlanta's Fox 5 News that a grand jury was meeting earlier this month regarding the FBI investigation.

The FBI wouldn't comment.

The group's most recent IRS filing showed its founder, Pastor Joe Wingo, drew $694,742 in salary and benefits in 2009, his wife, Linda, was paid $100,480, and their son Jonathan, listed as director of pastoral ministries and chief information officer, received $265,195.

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

>>Fast facts

Refunds

Earlier this month, Angel Food vowed to issue refunds to thousands of customers who had already placed orders for September delivery. So far, 98 percent of them have been refunded, according to a statement issued Wednesday. Angel Food is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to credit the remaining 59 patrons who used their welfare benefits to place September orders. Those who placed orders through their local host sites need to contact the church directly for a full refund.

Angel Food Ministries closes, citing poor economy 09/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 12:03am]

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