2009-03-12 / Front Page

Angel Food Ministries Lawsuit Settled

Local groups' reaction to suit is mixed
By Jean Snyder STAFF WRITER

The criticism and ultimately a lawsuit against Angel Food Ministries (AFM) have brought differing opinions locally about the $137 million Georgia-based nonprofit food distribution organization founded to help the poor.

Angel Food Ministries was founded by Joe and Linda Wingo in 1994 to provide food for friends and neighbors who were struggling financially. Today the AFM program provides food relief to more than 500,000 families each month.

A lawsuit filed last month in a Georgia Superior Court alleged that the Wingos used the nonprofit to enrich themselves through kickbacks from food vendors and by rerouting money to themselves through their church. The suit was filed by two Angel Food Ministry board members, and it asked a judge to bar Joe and Linda Wingo and their two sons from the premises of the organization and to protect the assets of the ministry.

The suit alleged that the Wingos enriched themselves by at least $2.7 million, which includes $600,000 the Wingos directed from Angel Food to their church, which was then allegedly given to the Wingos for a "housing allowance." According to published reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the suit also alleged that Joe Wingo set up a North Carolina corporation to buy a personal jet and then leased the jet to Angel Food Ministries for a profit of $10,000 a month. The suit further alleged the Wingos spent more than $850,000 for personal goods using Angel Food credit cards.

Now, less than two weeks after the suit's filing, the two board members who sued the nonprofit and the Wingos have come to an agreement in Walton County, Ga., Superior Court. According to the agreement approved by the court, the Wingos' company credit cards will be canceled, the nonprofit will undergo a forensic financial audit, and Joe Wingo will sign over to Angel Food a company he owns that was renting the corporate jet to the nonprofit. The attorney for the suing board members said the two have agreed to leave the board as part of the deal. They will retain standing to take any actions when the forensic audit comes in, he said. Joe Wingo and his son, Wesley, will retain their roles at the agency. During the hearing, attorneys said Linda Wingo left her position last year and son Andy left in late 2007.

Locally, the Warfordsburg Presbyterian Church, the Fulton County Catholic Mission and the Mental Health Association of Franklin/Fulton counties (MHA) participate in the food distribution. At this time, the Warfordsburg church and the local Catholic mission have no plans to sever their ties to the organization, while the Mental Health Association has already ended its relationship with AFM and is now distributing food through SHARE.

Sonny Weicht, Angel Food coordinator for the Warfordsburg Presbyterian Church, said there are no immediate plans for his church to move from Angel Food. "We are reluctant to make any changes until the founders of Angel Food are given the opportunity to defend all accusations," he said. He did add, however, "Although, as we continually strive to improve our service and quality of food to the community, we have taken steps to acquire samples of food from other sources for comparison. Our goal is to insure we are providing the best quality for the best price. As we move forward, the care of our community will be of the utmost importance in any decisions that are made."

According to Sister Margie Monahan, the local Catholic mission also has no intentions of severing ties to AFM. The mission partners with the Warfordsburg Presbyterian Church, and, she said, both are pleased with the distribution and will continue with it.

"I certainly think that if they (the Wingos) took from the ministry, then that is wrong, but they haven't taken anything from us," she said, "and they do have a board that runs the organization along with many good volunteers." Sr. Margie went on to say that tough economic times currently exist in our community and the food from Angel Food has been a blessing.

Kenny Wuertenburg, executive director of the MHA in Franklin and Fulton counties, feels differently about the charges. He said, "We were disappointed with Angel Food - we looked at the tax returns ourselves, spoke to Angel Food representatives and found their explanations to be insufficient. The decision to end our affiliation was not one that we made rashly. But everyone felt that it was in the best interest of our participants to do so. Our process involved the MHA Board of Directors, MHA staff and our volunteers. The are many good people involved in the Angel Food program as volunteers at other sites - good people of strong faith, and we wish them the very best."

Additionally, Wuertenburg said, "In SHARE we found a program that we believe will better meet the needs of our participants. The basic program provides a value package of food for $21.50 that contains frozen meats, fresh fruit and vegetables and staple items. The value package sells in grocery stores for 2-3 times what participants pay. This month there are a total of nine separate packages to choose from. Participants can purchase any package or combination of packages they desire. One neat component of the program is that SHARE encourages community service or volunteerism. Each month every participant is asked to perform two hours of service in their community. Community service is defined as anything you do for anyone else that you don't get paid for. One thing that attracted us to SHARE is that it is Pennsylvania based. Another is that during the growing season SHARE purchases food from in-state growers. Also SHARE will deliver the food to our site so we do not have to rent a truck like we did before and our distribution will take place on a Thursday evening, freeing up Saturday for everyone. Many folks will simply stop by on the way home from work. SHARE will also offer a "Pick Sheet" - a listing of nearly 100 items that participants can purchase either individually or in bulk. This will start in May. SHARE has thousands of participants in four states and this provides for great purchasing power where food is purchased in bulk and discounted to participants."

Angel Food Ministries offers a medium-sized box at $30 per unit. Each month's menu is different than the previous month and consists of both fresh and frozen items with an average retail value of approximately $60. Comparison shopping has been done across the country in various communities using a wide range of retail grocery stores and has resulted in the same food items costing from between $42 and $78.

Generally, one unit of food assists in feeding a family of four for about one week or a single senior citizen for almost a month. There are no second-hand items, no damaged or out-dated goods, no dented cans without labels, no day-old breads and no produce that is almost too ripe. Also offered are specialty boxes such as steaks, chicken and pork.

In addition, AFM contributes $1 to a host site's benevolence fund for every Angel Food box distributed. According to the ministry, "this provision enables host sites to make a greater impact in their communities and help more people get back on the feet." Sr. Margie also said this benevolent contribution is valuable to her program.

SHARE (Self-Help and Resource Exchange) is a program where people can purchase a package of food for $21.50 and two hours of community service with a retail value of about $35. The food package contains meat, fresh fruits, vegetables, and staples. SHARE buyers purchase the food from growers, brokers and packaging plants. The food is not donated, government surplus or salvage.

Both programs participate in the USDA Food Stamp program.

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