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A Second Harvest : A Beverly Hills playboy fell on hard times. Nearly broke himself, he found a way to feed the poor--using other people's leftovers. Today, 25 years after he created the first food bank, the movement is serving millions.

January 12, 1992|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — Where there is John Van Hengel there is less hunger.

Certainly in pinched, crowded corners of Los Angeles, New York and Detroit where volunteers inspired by his simple dream are offloading hundreds of tractor-trailers heavy with government groceries. Eventually, every brown pouch and tan can of the military's $300-million food surplus from Desert Storm will be piped through several hundred food banks to make 70 million meals for the homeless of 50 states.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 1992 Home Edition View Part E Page 5 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Food bank--A recent caption on a View photograph of personnel at St. Mary's Food Bank of Phoenix, incorrectly identified one man as Alan Merrett, executive director of the organization. The photograph was that of Food Bank worker Dave Rutledge.

In other regions, a second generation of Van Hengel angels with the Boston Food Bank and Daily Bread of Miami continue his genius for converting food-industry leftovers into main courses for the poor. They find a taste for every oddity: 60,000 pounds of apples rejected as undersized, 200 semi-loads of grapefruit juice that was turning green, a million marshmallow bunnies that didn't sell at Easter, and 6,000 pounds of frozen eels that became slimy grist for seafood lasagna.

And in this desert city stands the monument to the history and ingenuity of it all.

It is the St. Mary's Food Bank that Van Hengel built in an abandoned bakery in a dying barrio at a time in America when the only free food came from soup kitchens or walking the restaurant check.

Today, on the eve of its silver jubilee, St. Mary's survives as the world's first food bank, an exemplar for the several thousand depositories that have followed.

It also is mighty evidence of one gentle man's passion to lessen what he considers the shame of a nation where 20 million go hungry a few days each month. All the while, month in and year out, the American food industry wastes 20% of its production. Enough, says a Harvard study, to feed 49 million people.

"It's amazing how many people are being fed because of this crazy little thing we started," Van Hengel says. The collective pronoun includes a Latina grandmother and two handicapped volunteers who first joined Van Hengel's battle on hunger. "We're feeding millions and it is not costing anyone anything. But it scares me to look back because I just had no idea it would grow into this."

It actually has grown into a global assault on hunger, a secondary welfare system managed by the private sector in 200 American cities.

"Also 6 major food banks in Canada, 59 in France, 9 in Belgium and others in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ghana and Sri Lanka," Van Hengel recites.

Each distributes through thousands of charity agencies with dozens of separate programs until the full tally is countless. "You just don't know how many," Van Hengel continues. "In this country there probably are 5,000 food banks that are really nothing more than closets or pantries. We've got 85 in Arizona alone.

"Last month a guy called from Atlanta who had been approached by someone in France and now there are to be meetings in St. Petersburg (Russia) to talk about setting up something there."

In the United States there also is Second Harvest, a 180-bank network started by Van Hengel in 1976 to cull and glean food-industry surpluses on a national level. Last year, the Chicago-based organization distributed 476 million pounds of food, valued at $755 million.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank belongs to the Second Harvest chain. Last year, it distributed 22 million pounds of food worth $38 million through 620 charities.

In April, St. Mary's Food Bank will move into a new and cavernous building in West Phoenix. The 112,000-square-foot warehouse, once a wholesale hardware headquarters, cost $1.4 million. The food bank has enough local support to anticipate paying for it in cash.

Yet, John Van Hengel's personal finances have always been only a few dollars better than any indigent he has fed for the past quarter-century.

His first decade at St. Mary's was without salary. He ate Spam from unlabeled cans on 2-day-old rolls or whatever else had been donated to the bank that morning. His clothes came from Salvation Army bins and Van Hengel padded about Phoenix in a scuffed letterman's jacket and a male nurse's orthopedic bucks. Home was a donated room above a garage.

He was, in part, supporting the vows of personal poverty followed by another feeder of the lost: Mother Teresa.

He was, in total, following his belief in the Scriptures, particularly Matthew 6: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Today, Van Hengel's treasures must still be heavenly.

"A dentist gave me these shoes," Van Hengel says, showing off his latest medical bucks and the rest of his '60s wardrobe. "The cardigan came from the Salvation Army . . . pants were given to me by a guy in a nursing home because they didn't fit him anymore.

"Oh, I did buy three pairs of socks. But that was two years ago."

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