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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Angel Food Ministries, which has helped feed needy families in 45 states, has sold its last box of discounted food.
The 17-year-old Monroe-based nonprofit blamed the shutdown on the state of the economy, including increasing costs for food, fuel and operations. But the organization had other problems, including an ongoing federal investigation, a past lawsuit filed by members of its own board and heightened scrutiny about the pay given to members of the family that founded it.
The ministry, which earlier this month had suspended food distribution for September as it considered a restructuring or reorganization, announced Wednesday that it had considered "many options" concerning its future.
"At this time, we regret to inform you that we have not found a solution that will allow Angel Food Ministries to continue to distribute food on a monthly basic and have decided to cease operations," the nonprofit said in a statement.
It also said a group of former employees and food vendors are working to find a way to serve those who have bought food from Angel Food.
Angel Food was founded by Linda and Wesley Joseph Wingo, also known as Pastor Joe, in 1994. Joe Wingo's idea, he once told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was to buy food at a discount and use a network of churches and volunteers to sell it, with enough profit to keep it running. He would donate $1 back to churches for every food box sold for the once-a-month deliveries.
And while many people -- including the unemployed and elderly -- benefited from buying the food boxes, there also were indications of trouble for the nonprofit.
In addition to suspending food distribution for the month, Angel Food laid off its entire full-time staff of 90 people and put its headquarters building up for sale. To conserve energy and utility expenses at its cold storage facility, some food was returned to vendors, and some of it was donated to food banks and other charities.
The nonprofit is still under investigation by the FBI, which an Angel Food spokesman said hurt the nonprofit's image with the public and its relationship with churches and customers. It also caused Angel Food to incur "considerable legal expense," the spokesman said.
Angel Food's end comes after Georgia’s unemployment rate in August rose to 10.2 percent -- its highest level in six months -- and the state has, according to census figures, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates in 2010.
"Because of the recession, groups like theirs have seen a big increase in demand for their services, and most have not seen an equal increase in income and donations," said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing and CFO of the watchdog group Charity Navigator. "Groups are under pressure right now. But on the other side, I think it's troubling because of the salaries they were paying, the number of families members who were working at the charity ... all that leaves a cloud of suspicion over what happened."
According to the nonprofit’s most recent 990 filing with the Internal Revenue Service, Angel Food paid a total of $1.06 million in 2009 to three family members who run the organization. Angel Food paid Joseph Wingo $697,037. His son, Jonathan Wesley Wingo, listed as director of pastoral ministries and chief information officer, received $265,195. And Linda Wingo, listed as a director and corporate secretary, was paid $100,480.
Angel Food also has faced court battles.
In 2009, two board members, Craig Atnip and David A. Prather, filed suit alleging that the Wingos enriched themselves through the nonprofit doing such things as using the company credit cards on personal items. The suit alleged that Andy Wingo, one of Joe and Linda Wingo's sons, took kickbacks from vendors.
As part of a settlement, Angel Food said it would complete a forensic audit; that company credit cards used by the Wingos must be canceled; and Andy Wingo is barred from ever doing business with the nonprofit again.
Angel Food said Wednesday that 98 percent of its customers who placed an order in September have already received a full refund. It said it is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to credit the remaining 59 customers who used their food stamp benefits to place a September order.
Vanessa Murry, host site director for Clarkston First Baptist Church, said the loss of Angel Food will have a "tremendous" impact. Murry, who lives in Decatur, said the church recently ordered about 25 boxes a month, down from as many as 80 at one time. She also ordered boxes for her family. "A lot of people are having hard times," she said. "We had to set up payment plans for some of our regular customers."
Murry said her heart sank when she heard that the nonprofit would not distribute in September.
"I knew there was probably not going to be an immediate solution," she said. She said the church has an outreach center that she expects some former Angel Food customers to start using, "but I don't know how much more they can absorb."
Murry, who works for an insurance company, said that one month she didn't order food from Angel Food, which can cost half of what it costs at a typical retailer. "I felt a difference at the grocery store," she said.
Cynthia Pierce, who coordinates the Angel Food program at Lilla Memorial Baptist Church in Barnesville, was shocked the program was going away. "It's horrific," said Pierce, who also orders food for her family. After the September suspension of service, Pierce said she explored alternative ways to get food to people.
Said Pierce: "It kind of hurts that we don't know any answers to give anybody."