A Second Harvest : A Beverly Hills playboy fell on hard times. Nearly broke himself, he found a way to feed the poor--using other people's leftovers. Today, 25 years after he created the first food bank, the movement is serving millions.


Where there is John Van Hengel there is less hunger.

Certainly in pinched, crowded corners of Los Angeles, New York and Detroit where volunteers inspired by his simple dream are offloading hundreds of tractor-trailers heavy with government groceries. Eventually, every brown pouch and tan can of the military's $300-million food surplus from Desert Storm will be piped through several hundred food banks to make 70 million meals for the homeless of 50 states.

In other regions, a second generation of Van Hengel angels with the Boston Food Bank and Daily Bread of Miami continue his genius for converting food-industry leftovers into main courses for the poor. They find a taste for every oddity: 60,000 pounds of apples rejected as undersized, 200 semi-loads of grapefruit juice that was turning green, a million marshmallow bunnies that didn't sell at Easter, and 6,000 pounds of frozen eels that became slimy grist for seafood lasagna.

And in this desert city stands the monument to the history and ingenuity of it all.

It is the St. Mary's Food Bank that Van Hengel built in an abandoned bakery in a dying barrio at a time in America when the only free food came from soup kitchens or walking the restaurant check.

Today, on the eve of its silver jubilee, St. Mary's survives as the world's first food bank, an exemplar for the several thousand depositories that have followed.

It also is mighty evidence of one gentle man's passion to lessen what he considers the shame of a nation where 20 million go hungry a few days each month. All the while, month in and year out, the American food industry wastes 20% of its production. Enough, says a Harvard study, to feed 49 million people.

"It's amazing how many people are being fed because of this crazy little thing we started," Van Hengel says. The collective pronoun includes a Latina grandmother and two handicapped volunteers who first joined Van Hengel's battle on hunger. "We're feeding millions and it is not costing anyone anything. But it scares me to look back because I just had no idea it would grow into this."

It actually has grown into a global assault on hunger, a secondary welfare system managed by the private sector in 200 American cities.

"Also 6 major food banks in Canada, 59 in France, 9 in Belgium and others in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ghana and Sri Lanka," Van Hengel recites.

Each distributes through thousands of charity agencies with dozens of separate programs until the full tally is countless. "You just don't know how many," Van Hengel continues. "In this country there probably are 5,000 food banks that are really nothing more than closets or pantries. We've got 85 in Arizona alone.

"Last month a guy called from Atlanta who had been approached by someone in France and now there are to be meetings in St. Petersburg (Russia) to talk about setting up something there."

In the United States there also is Second Harvest, a 180-bank network started by Van Hengel in 1976 to cull and glean food-industry surpluses on a national level. Last year, the Chicago-based organization distributed 476 million pounds of food, valued at $755 million.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank belongs to the Second Harvest chain. Last year, it distributed 22 million pounds of food worth $38 million through 620 charities.

In April, St. Mary's Food Bank will move into a new and cavernous building in West Phoenix. The 112,000-square-foot warehouse, once a wholesale hardware headquarters, cost $1.4 million. The food bank has enough local support to anticipate paying for it in cash.

Yet, John Van Hengel's personal finances have always been only a few dollars better than any indigent he has fed for the past quarter-century.

His first decade at St. Mary's was without salary. He ate Spam from unlabeled cans on 2-day-old rolls or whatever else had been donated to the bank that morning. His clothes came from Salvation Army bins and Van Hengel padded about Phoenix in a scuffed letterman's jacket and a male nurse's orthopedic bucks. Home was a donated room above a garage.

He was, in part, supporting the vows of personal poverty followed by another feeder of the lost: Mother Teresa.

He was, in total, following his belief in the Scriptures, particularly Matthew 6: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Today, Van Hengel's treasures must still be heavenly.

"A dentist gave me these shoes," Van Hengel says, showing off his latest medical bucks and the rest of his '60s wardrobe. "The cardigan came from the Salvation Army . . . pants were given to me by a guy in a nursing home because they didn't fit him anymore.

"Oh, I did buy three pairs of socks. But that was two years ago."

His only income is a small consulting fee from the food bank and an even smaller Social Security check. The ungrand total is $12,000 a year. That pays for a $375-a-month apartment with early discount-house furniture. He owns a 1978 Oldsmobile Brougham that cost $600 because it had been totaled and welded back together. It should have been left for dead.

Such is the portrait of selflessness.

It is also several fortunes and social levels removed from the Beverly Hills playboy Van Hengel used to be.

Born to a Dutch-American family of physicians and pharmacists who lived well and problem-free in Waupun, Wis., Van Hengel left Lawrence University in 1944 with a degree in government. A leg wrecked by football kept him out of World War II but not off intercollegiate tennis courts.

Postgraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin hinted at a law career. He ignored them. He did what a legion of 21-year-olds have done before and since: Van Hengel moved to Southern California.

"I found I liked the good life and became a first-rate beach bum," he recalls. He played volleyball on Muscle Beach, AA softball in Griffith Park and tennis at the Beverly Wilshire with Howard Duff and Gussie Moran. "I also got a job with Ben Pollack, a big band leader who became an agent. He had Kay Starr and Mel Torme and the Meltones. I got the jugglers and strippers."

Eventually, Van Hengel became focused and studied broadcasting at UCLA. He became, in turn, a magazine publicist, garment industry ad man, designer of plastic rainwear, restaurant maitre d' and driver of a beer truck in Beverly Hills. While renting a home owned by Rhonda Fleming's mother.

He married a model for I. Magnin and became a division sales manager for Bear Archery. Then, in 1960, a divorce.

"I took off back to Wisconsin, hurt, escaping and so angry that I wanted the worst job I could find," Van Hengel remembers. "I went to work in a quarry making rocks with a sledgehammer and a pick. Our group was ornery, mean, cheap because anybody working in a quarry didn't have much going for him.

"Neither did I."

Van Hengel was injured in a factory fight and spinal surgery left him with a locked neck, palsy and bad legs. Told everything would work better in a warmer, drier state, he came to Phoenix with no job and just a few dollars.

Endless laps in a YMCA pool brought stability, then strength back to his body. He drove a school bus and advanced to city employee. "At 44," he says, "I was the oldest public pools lifeguard in Phoenix."

Van Hengel found religion, too, but not from any conscious searching. He simply started reading the Bible as a primer for attending a free retreat. "As I read, I realized I was doing the things I should be doing . . . my work was copying what was written there."

That work was with a charity dining room. Van Hengel recovered coin collection cans from grocery stores. His salary was 30% of the loose change. He also befriended alcoholics and helped the helpless. From an arthritic ex-milk truck bought for $150, Van Hengel picked citrus from homeowners' trees and hauled the fruit to charity missions.

Then came a telegram. Bear Archery wanted him back.

But, he says, "I had freedom and people were becoming more important than money. They were more sincere, more honest than people I'd met in the 'good life.' "

Van Hengel opted for friends and reality.

He also started looking for a small place to store his citrus so he could collect more. It would also serve as a central point where charities could call for the fruit and he wouldn't be delivering each day until 9 p.m.

Van Hengel got an abandoned bakery that had been willed to the Franciscans of nearby St. Mary's Church. Close to where the needy huddled on Skid Row, it was an ideal place for a free fruit store. The parish council even chipped in $3,000 for a telephone, utilities and converting the bakery's hot room into a temporary cool room.

Late in 1967, a city social worker introduced Van Hengel to a woman and an idea. She had 10 children and a husband on Death Row. Yet food, she said, was no problem. She shopped daily in refuse bins at the rear of a nearby grocery store.

Van Hengel went to the bins. "I found frozen food had been thrown out but was still frozen, still edible. Loose carrots. Stale bread. And the woman had healthy kids who obviously didn't eat bad at all."

He visited the store manager and in a back room found less perishable leavings. A case of ketchup condemned by one broken bottle. Bags leaking rice and sugar from small tears. A dozen dented cans and many "shiners," cans without labels.

The manager said it would be thrown out. Van Hengel said he wanted it for the hungry.

"Then I got into the system and started talking to other managers," Van Hengel explains. "I found there would be pickups of damaged and outdated goods and semis would haul it away to the dump. So I asked to have the semis stop at our place and we'd unload them."

Touched by that scene, the grandmother who inspired Van Hengel's work drew a cartoon of a building. Food was being deposited and happy faces were making withdrawals. She said they had built a bank of food.

Van Hengel roared. "I said: 'That's it.' we'll call this place St. Mary's Food Bank."

A motto followed: "The poor we shall always have with us. But why the hungry?"

Within a year, Van Hengel was intercepting grocery chain semis in Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Prescott and Yuma. He added fruit and vegetables gleaned from local fields. To avoid angering charities, Van Hengel asked only for surplus food, never money. Despite its Franciscan launch pad, he dealt with all churches and agencies.

In its first year, St. Mary's Food Bank distributed more than 250,000 pounds of food to 36 charities.

No offering was refused. Five thousand live chickens. Five hundred cases of anchovies. Van Hengel's thinking was that if it couldn't be eaten, it could always be traded. So the anchovies became Phoenix Suns basketball tickets. Which were traded for food.

And in a unique agreement with a friendly judge, Van Hengel became the recipient of 539,000 gallons of milk. The donation was part of the sentence against local dairies convicted of price fixing.

The St. Mary's example inspired the Grandview Food Bank of Pasadena, the nation's second food bank. Then banks in San Diego, San Jose and Concord. Then Portland and Seattle.

"It all just fell into place, step by step," he remembers. "The evolution was there and the potential unbelievable. But I can't claim fatherhood. It was the will of the good Lord. I just plodded. If the door opened, I went in. If the door closed, I backed off and started again."

In 1976, Van Hengel left St. Mary's to birth Second Harvest. Based in Phoenix, funded by a $50,000 federal grant, it counseled cities wanting food banks. It also tapped into disposal programs at the manufacturing level.

This haul from General Foods and Nabisco Brands and others was gargantuan: 37 railroad cars of cereal that had too many raisins; 5 million pounds of ravioli not cooked to company standards; 6 million pounds of bananas held a day too long at the docks.

But Hengel didn't change. His tailor remained the Community Clothing Bank; his Sunday best was Saturday's worst. And indeed there were times--arriving at corporate offices or service club fund-raisers--when Van Hengel was denied admission because of his baggy pants and holey sweat shirts.

Second Harvest moved to Chicago, the bureaucracy grew and there was no place for those who did business out of a hat and by handshake. So Van Hengel quit in 1983.

He is not bitter. He understands change and accepts the past because he knows the national good the organization does. He does not want comments based on his personal feelings to damage support for Second Harvest.

"He's a good, wonderful man," says Sister Christine Vladimiroff, who in September assumed the presidency of Second Harvest. Under her management, she notes, the organization will even be redeveloping the softer, people-driven methods of its founder.

"There is no denying that John Van Hengel started Second Harvest . . . no denying that his vision remains our mission, which is feeding the hungry."

Van Hengel remains devoted to the grass-roots structure and progress of St. Mary's Food Bank. St. Mary's annual operating budget now is $2 million, filled each year by donations. Second Harvest charges its clients a 14-cent "shared maintenance fee" per pound of delivered food. St. Mary's--one of several dozen food banks independent of Second Harvest--charges nothing and still has $3 million in the bank.

Such progress brings pride to its founder. So does the role food banks are playing in the unexpected bounty of Operation Desert Storm. "If it weren't for the food banks, what would the government do with it?" he asked. "They don't have a distribution system. But we do and so that government food will not be wasted.

Van Hengel is now 68 and sad there hasn't been time for a second marriage. He smokes too many Pall Malls and his legs hurt again. Semi-retired from the food bank business, he misses the personal contact but remains available to anyone from anywhere with a storefront and half-formed thoughts about feeding the poor.

There have been only a few local honors from the Salvation Army and the Maricopa County Medical Society. The Phoenix Advertising Club named him Man of the Year in 1972 when the Woman of the Year was a relatively obscure Phoenix judge: Sandra Day O'Connor.

"You can't eat off trophies," is his rationale.

Still, there is community respect and he has spent time with First Lady Barbara Bush, honorary chairperson of Second Harvest.

Bill Shover, director of public affairs for the Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette newspapers, calls him "the Mother Teresa of celery.

"Van Hengel is a fine man, shy, retiring, humble . . . whose life has restored quality to the lives of other people."

He is not the only Van Hengel who has made such contributions.

Five years ago--on a tourist ticket that was a gift, of course--Van Hengel visited his Dutch relatives and roots. In a country cemetery near Amsterdam, he found a 1649 grave. John Van Hengel knew nothing of the Dirk Van Hengel who rested there.

But his epitaph read: "He Fed the Poor of Germany."

For the Record Los Angeles Times Thursday January 30, 1992 Home Edition View Part E Page 5 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction Food bank--A recent caption on a View photograph of personnel at St. Mary's Food Bank of Phoenix, incorrectly identified one man as Alan Merrett, executive director of the organization. The photograph was that of Food Bank worker Dave Rutledge.
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