By Jeff McDonald
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
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
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
“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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585; firstname.lastname@example.org