Story Time: The most important man you’ve never heard of

From the time we are young, and throughout our lives, nearly all of us aspire to ‘change the world’ in some fashion. And thankfully, many people accomplish that important goal in different measures and in different ways. Some seem almost destined to do great things from the time they are born, and others … well, not so much. I’d like to share with you the story of one truly remarkable man who made the most of a tough situation in life for the benefit of others.

I’ll warn you in advance that it’s a fairly long read for a blog entry, but I hope you will indulge me and settle in with it anyway. When you’re finished, I believe that you’ll not only be fascinated by the man himself, but that you’ll have a deeper understanding of the concepts and origins of what we call “food banking” as well.

So … Have you ever heard of John Van Hengle? Doesn’t sound familiar? I’m not surprised. He lived a mostly unremarkable life, right up until the point where he changed the world. But I promise to get back to that part later. First, you should know just a bit about the man’s early life.

John Van Hengle was born in Wisconsin in 1922. His family managed to survive The Great Depression reasonably well, and he was eventually able to attend college. After college, Van Hengle moved to California to become a self-described ‘beach bum.’ For a number of years, he held down a fairly wide variety of jobs in order to pay bills. He worked variously as a magazine publicist, ad agency man, sales manager for an archery equipment company, and even designed plastic raincoats at one point. After meeting a young model in Hollywood, Van Hengle married and became the father of two children.

Soon after, however, the marriage ended and his wife left with the kids.  This seemed to mark the start of a downward spiral for Van Hengle. While his previous jobs had been more professional in nature, he began to take more menial jobs to survive. He worked in a rock quarry for a time, and then at a factory. Serious injuries were sustained in a workplace fight that resulted in spinal surgery. Unfortunately, the operation produced a locked neck, palsy, and weakened legs. Following a doctor’s advice to move to a warmer, drier climate for his health, Van Hengle relocated to Phoenix, Arizona in the early 1960s.

With little income and unable to work, he lived at the YMCA in Phoenix, and began using the services of a nearby St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen program for his meals. He also began reading the Bible, and found that certain passages dealing with helping the poor and needy seemed to light up on the page like a neon sign.

Van Hengle began to volunteer at the soup kitchen he had been using.   He strengthened his body by swimming, and eventually got a job at age 44 as ‘The oldest public pool lifeguard in Phoenix.”   For a time, he was engaged in the task of visiting the dumpsters of local food companies to gather whatever could be found there for use at the kitchen.

One day, Van Hengle met a mother of ten children in the dumpster whose husband was in prison.   Her comment that “I wish you could draw food out of an account, like at a bank…” inspired an idea.   He approached a local produce distribution company and asked whether the food could be ‘picked up by the soup kitchen before it was dumped.’   He described to the Manager how the soup kitchen safely handled and re-prepared the food for people in need, and also shared a few stories of real people. The company agreed to help. Soon, Van Hengle was picking up more fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis than the soup kitchen could possibly use. Rather than let the extra food go to waste, however, Van Hengle called a few other local feeding programs who were thrilled to receive the additional products. Both the soup kitchen and the other programs found that they could help far more people in need as a result of the increased flow of unspoiled food.

Van Hengle went to other food companies in the Phoenix area, and was able to convince them that the benefits of donating—a tax deduction and reduced dumping costs—were significantly better than throwing food away. Soon he found that most of his time was being spent ‘giving away’ the bountiful extra product donations to feeding programs throughout the community, who had begun lining up in great numbers to take them. Van Hengle began looking for donated space from which to store and distribute the food.

St. Mary’s Basilica Church of Phoenix stepped up and gave $3000 and an abandoned building for Van Hengle’s new operation. The program was named St. Mary’s Food Bank, and became the first-ever true “Food Bank” organization in history. The model was both simple and efficient: Van Hengle offered local nonprofit feeding programs incredible and abundant new donated food resources that they simply couldn’t have gotten on their own. At the same time, he offered food companies a way to reduce their dumping costs, while providing a tax deduction and assurances that food was being handled safely. Just as important, companies were assured that the food they donated would never, ever be ‘sold’ to people in need. Dozens of local nonprofit feeding programs clamored to get donated food from this new ‘Food Bank,’ and many, many more struggling families in Phoenix were helped.

A remarkable story even if it stopped right there, don’t you think? But it didn’t. Other cities around the nation had begun to take notice of this incredible and efficient use of existing food resources to help people living in poverty. After all, there wasn’t any shortage of ‘extra’ food in America; only a lack of cost-efficient ways to make it available to people who needed help. At least a dozen other ‘food banks’ sprung up in American cities in the late 1960s as a result.  Van Hengle accepted a government grant in 1976 to form an ‘association’ or network of the new food bank organizations.  This network of food banks would be able to share best practices, and to operate according to a standard set of guidelines designed to make them each more efficient. Also, the guidelines helped protect the corporate food donors and their tax deductions.

Over a few decades, Van Hengle’s big idea continued to spread across the nation, and the “Second Harvest” national network of food banks (now called Feeding America) grew in membership. Major national food manufacturers were attracted to the efficiency, and began to join food distributors, wholesalers, retailers, growers, and other donors all over the country. From humble beginnings in Phoenix, the concept of food banking had grown exponentially from the local collection and distribution of a few million pounds of food per year … to tens of millions of pounds … to hundreds of millions of pounds … and ultimately to more than 3 Billion pounds of food provided last year alone in America. (I hoped you paused here to say WOW!). 

The Feeding America network today includes 205 independent community food bank organizations that provide food to every county of every state in America. More than 50,000 local nonprofit feeding programs now draw food resources from these food banks, and tens of millions of individuals and families in need are helped every year as a result.

John Van Hengle died in 2005 at the age of 83. A humble man with one very big idea and a heart to match. I have always considered it unfortunate that Van Hengle is not more well-known for his place in history, but in my opinion his contribution to humanity places him alongside much more recognizable American heroes and heroines such as Clara Barton, Jane Addams, Cesar Chavez and Sargent Shriver.

He was a man whose work made it possible for millions of people in need of food to get help that would not otherwise have been available to them. As an employee of Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, I am deeply privileged every day to be able to help continue the legacy of John Van Hengle in my own community. I truly appreciate that you seem to find this incredible mission interesting as well. (Why else would you have read this story all the way to the end?:-). Thanks so much for your steadfast support.

Greg Higgerson
CFRE Vice-President, Development

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