From Canyon To Cove: Accusations lead to rift between 'food groups'

You'd think that folks who care enough about needy people to work very hard to feed them would have charity to spare for each other.

Not always.

Take the case of Helping Hand Worldwide and the Laguna Relief and Resource Coalition, both based in Laguna Beach. Helping Hand has accused the Coalition of mishandling and misappropriating donated food, and of violating federal laws. Although local police and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cannot find any evidence of this, still the accusations are made.

It's a food fight: literally a fight over food.

And the groups used to be good friends.

Helping Hand founder Sita Helms claims that the Coalition violated a restriction in the U.S. Patriot Act that prohibits the group from sending food across U.S. borders. Pretty serious stuff.

But when I tried to verify that the U.S. Patriot Act in fact did not allow donated food to be sent to other countries, I got nothing but puzzlement from a spokeswoman for the USDA, which oversees federally funded food.

If that was so, spokeswoman Julie Yee said, the U.S. government would itself be in violation of the Act, because the government has an entire agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, devoted to sending food and other aid to foreign countries. So much for that allegation.

In September 2010, Helms wrote a letter to the Coalition outlining her complaints, and then sought to get the Laguna Beach Police Department to go after the Coalition for alleged illegal acts, but as Police Chief Paul Workman said a few weeks ago, "We could find no illegal activity."

The police turned the case over to the USDA, which according to Yee has not pursued the allegation that the Coalition illegally sent food to an orphanage in Mexico.

It's a sad way to end an association that began with friendship, according to Don Campbell, who works with the Coalition to feed local families, and also helps to feed orphans in Mexico through his church, Laguna Presbyterian.

Campbell said he and Helms used to work together, gathering food from area markets and distributing it locally through the Coalition. What they couldn't give away to families was sent to the Mexican orphanage that the church has adopted, all approved by the Coalition. However, due to Helms' complaints, Campbell says the church is now raising $1,200 each month to purchase supplies for the orphanage from a Costco in Ensenada.

He also took a safe food handling class to make sure the group is up-to-date on current practices, another area of complaint. But Campbell and Coalition Executive Director Andy Siegenfeld both insist the group "did not mishandle food."

Since the complaints were lodged, the hunger crisis has only worsened in Laguna Beach, as the economy continues to struggle and people have lost their livelihoods.

The Resource Center used to feed maybe 20 families a day, and now more than 80 people — individuals and families — are showing up to fill a bag with food, which they are allowed to do once a week, Siegenfeld said.

Much of the food is donated from local grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Pavilions, as well as from food drives by local groups such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and churches.

The Coalition is also authorized to accept federally funded food, which is handed out once a month under strict requirements that limit it to people who live, work or go to school in Laguna Beach.

"We used to have 19 or 20 people come in," Siegenfeld said. "Now we have three times that. People aren't employed. We have middle-class people driving up in expensive cars they can't afford."

The numbers go even higher when the federal government hands out premium staples like eggs and chicken, Campbell said.

"We're the only pantry where people can come in and choose food, rather than receiving a box of food," Siegenfeld said.

And the Coalition never charges for food, which some of the other pantries do.

While the need has skyrocketed, Helping Hand's donations from supermarkets and other food outlets has grown exponentially. Helping Hand received more than $7 million in mostly "in kind donations" in 2010. That was $2 million more than the more than $5 million the group reported receiving in 2009.

Much of Helping Hand's food is given away to Camp Pendleton Marine families, and to low-income seniors in Laguna Beach, as well as food pantries run by churches in surrounding towns. None of its supplies help stock the food pantry at the Resource Center on Laguna Canyon Road.

While Helping Hand Worldwide has accused the Coalition of not abiding by government requirements, its own record of compliance with requirements for nonprofit agencies has been spotty. The Coalition, by contrast, is up-to-date in its filings on the state attorney general's website.

Helping Hand Worldwide has not filed requested IRS tax forms with the state for two years, according to the state's website. The website lists the organization as "delinquent" in its filings, and states it did not meet its filing deadline for 2011.

Helms said the group has been too busy gathering and handing out food to file the forms in time, but that is being corrected. She provided me with the group's 2010 IRS tax return.

From what I found on the state website, the organization, a public benefit agency, reported gross annual revenues of nearly $5.16 million from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2009. That was a huge increase in revenues over the previous year, for which the organization reported $722,835.

This dwarfs the Coalition, which reported gross annual revenues of $134,387 in the fiscal year from Dec. 1, 2009, to Nov. 30, 2010. The group reported total assets of $226,769 for that period.

Despite the huge revenues reported by Helping Hand, total reported assets in 2009 were $9,802. Reported assets in 2008 were $10,103, according to the registration renewal fee reports on file with the state.

Helping Hand Worldwide started out in 2004 with reported annual revenues of $5,025 and assets of $3,344, according to records filed with the state.

Helping Hand also ships food overseas — to military bases in Afghanistan, Helms said.

The group also responds to special requests for food from local activists who see a need.

"The Camp Pendleton families are very poor," Helms said. "We also send baby clothes, and notebooks and pencils."

Helms said her group would not hesitate to provide food to the Coalition's food pantry if the Coalition can satisfy Helping Hand's requirements.

"Once they are able to be in compliance, we would be happy to deliver them food," she said.

But Siegenfeld said the group can get by without a hand from Helping Hand, especially since they are able to draw from the federal food bank.

"There is only one organization in this ZIP code that can get food from the federal food bank, and that's us," Siegenfeld said.

And while the Coalition was hurting for a while because Helping Hand stopped its food donations, that is no longer the case.

As the holidays approach, the Coalition is preparing to hand out 75 complete turkey dinners Dec. 19 provided by a local Roosters Club. Laguna Beach High School held a food drive recently, as well as the community of Emerald Bay.

Even Waste Management, a trash collector, has donated food, Siegenfeld said.

The Coalition is conducting its annual Adopt-a-Family holiday program, whereby people can meet the "wish list" of a designated needy family. The work goes on, and there is more than enough for the two groups to handle.

Despite the contentious history between the groups, Siegenfeld says they have moved on.

"There is no longer a conflict between us and Sita Helms," he said, adding, "Laguna Beach is an incredibly generous community."

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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