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Charity hungering for a solution  

By Jeff McDonald
October 15, 2006

JOHN R. MCCUTCHEN / Union-Tribune
Tony Astolfi, pastor at Freedom in Christ Fellowship in El Cajon, said he relies on the San Diego Food Bank to stock his charity pantry. Tony Astolfi has a front-row seat to hunger. He sees it every week at Tuesday night Bible study. It hangs on the faces of addicts who turn up at his pantry broke, with children and empty stomachs.

Astolfi, a pastor at Freedom in Christ Fellowship in El Cajon, relies on the San Diego Food Bank to fill his cupboards. So do families that collect his food boxes every week, and the men and women in his sober-living homes.

“What we buy outside the food bank every month probably does not exceed $200,” he said. “All the rest comes from the food bank.”

Like hundreds of first-string volunteers who serve the poorest residents of San Diego County, Astolfi is afraid the political squabble that caused most of the food bank's board of directors to walk off the job last week will soon hit home.

If handouts from the food bank dry up, Astolfi and other charity workers will be slim on options.

The largest hunger-relief agency in the region is facing its most serious crisis since it was established by Neighborhood House Association of San Diego nearly 30 years ago.

The directors who quit warned that money was so tight they needed an immediate cash infusion to avoid laying off one-third of the staff or imposing sharp reductions in distributions.

Neighborhood House, which runs numerous other programs besides the food bank, is assessing its entire food operation and next month plans to begin making whatever changes are needed to balance the books. Agency officials have resisted putting more money into the program and are committed to maintaining current services only through October.

“Their priorities are not the food bank; I think that's pretty clear,” said Rod Smith, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who until Monday was vice chairman of the Neighborhood House and food bank boards. “I wish they could come up with some financial support to at least carry us through the holiday food drive.”

The San Diego Food Bank was set up as an independent charity after a theft ring was exposed last year. The move was aimed at restoring community trust in the food bank, but Neighborhood House never gave up control of the assets. The public-relations strategy did not work; donations to the organization plummeted.

Lack of trust
If the money crunch forces downsizing at the San Diego Food Bank after Nov. 1, the popular charity food program is most likely to suffer.
That program accounts for nearly 45 percent of the 10 million pounds of donations the food bank delivers to needy families each year. It allows qualified ministries and nonprofits to “shop” for whatever merchandise is available any given day, paying only a modest service fee of up to 18 cents a pound.

Those smaller charities then hand out the food at churches, pantries and parking lots across San Diego County. The donations come from individuals, grocers, manufacturers and America's Second Harvest, the national charity that sanctions most major food banks, including the San Diego operation.

Unlike other San Diego Food Bank programs, which are funded by the government and enjoy a steady income stream, the charity food program costs notably more to operate than it collects from member agencies.

It costs about $2 million a year to maintain the food bank's current work force and level of services. Neighborhood House gave the food bank $300,000 for the fiscal year that began July 1, but most of that has been spent.

Former board members said they were unable to raise much money from donors because so many people don't trust Neighborhood House to invest the donations appropriately.

An urgent mailing sent to thousands of households last month yielded only a few hundred dollars. One former director said the initiative didn't even cover the price of stamps.

The Aqualia Foundation offered the food bank $1 million, but only if Neighborhood House agreed to a clean break from its hunger-fighting program. The Neighborhood House board formally rejected the gift Oct. 6, a Friday. Eight of the nine remaining food bank members quit the following Monday.

On Thursday, the San Diego Chargers reluctantly ended a long-standing partnership with the food bank. Team officials said they couldn't secure a commitment from Neighborhood House that the food bank would be open after Nov. 1.

In June 2005, Neighborhood House announced the successful conclusion of a capital campaign to raise $7 million to pay down the mortgage on its warehouse in Miramar, the food bank's first permanent home in more than 25 years.

The $10 million or so in warehouse equity is now one of the main sticking points between former board members and Neighborhood House, which offered the food bank directors “functional autonomy” in exchange for a 50 percent stake in the property just before they quit.

Jack McGrory, the Price Enterprises executive and former San Diego city manager who co-chaired the capital campaign, said he has confidence in new Neighborhood House President Rudolph Johnson III but understands people are thinking twice about investing in the food bank just now.

“Any donor is really going to question before throwing good money after what looks like bad money,” McGrory said.

National attention
Food banks have never played a more important role in helping needy people. More Americans are experiencing hunger now than at any time in the nation's history – 38 million by some counts, including about 13 million children.
In San Diego, researchers say, more than 813,000 people go hungry at some point each year. That's better than one in four residents.

Officials from the national food-banking network Second Harvest have been watching developments at the San Diego Food Bank closely. But so far they have said almost nothing publicly about the impasse.

Privately, however, they are working to find a way to safeguard services as Thanksgiving and the holiday season approach.

Second Harvest could decertify Neighborhood House as its San Diego affiliate, although that is not likely to happen unless another charity were lined up to quickly take over those duties.

Certification as a Second Harvest affiliate is critical to running a major food bank. The Chicago-based food network negotiates agreements with scores of growers, retailers and manufacturers that supply food and other products that stock Second Harvest-affiliated warehouses nationwide.

The certification also allows member food banks to swap donations with one another when they receive more of a particular item than they can distribute. That added benefit helps deliver donations more efficiently.

Some foot soldiers in the fight against hunger are no longer waiting for the San Diego Food Bank to resolve its funding issues or for Second Harvest to intervene.

The Rev. Mark Harmon, for example, who runs a food pantry at Good Samaritan Catholic Church in National City, said the prospect of losing the San Diego Food Bank as a reliable source of donations is troubling.

Harmon said clients come to him as a last resort, and closing the giveaway program is no option. Too many families rely on his twice-a-week distributions to think about cutting back.

“If we have to buy the food ourselves at different places, we'll do it,” Harmon said. “But it's a shame. We're going to start our own fundraising.”

Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585;

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