A once-popular discount food program run through local churches has ceased operations, blaming the recent economic downturn.
Angel Food Ministries, which started 17 years ago in Georgia, provided boxes of food for multiple meals at a rate between 30 and 50 percent less than what it would typically cost in a grocery store. Although the program was aimed at families in need, there were no income guidelines to participate.
On Wednesday, the multimillion-dollar nonprofit announced it was ceasing operations immediately.
Lori Schultheis, host site director at Second Congregational Church in Marietta, said she wasn't completely surprised by the news.
"We knew they'd been having trouble with getting food orders, and the numbers were dropping," she said.
Second Congregational had taken and distributed Angel Food orders since 2007. In the beginning, they drew as many as 400 customers in one month, but the numbers had dropped and leveled off to about 65 to 70 over the last six months, Schultheis said.
"I personally think it was the economy," she said. "People just don't have the $30 or $40 to put out for food and then wait for a week. It was an economical way to get the food if you could wait the week."
Angel Food announced earlier this month it would not be able to distribute food for September orders. A message at www.angelfoodministries.com said the organization had "every intention to continue offering great food at great prices in the coming months and are considering ways to reorganize or restructure our Ministry."
But that changed Wednesday.
"Angel Food has not been immune from the same economic and market conditions that led to the loss of other food ministries," says a statement provided to The Associated Press. "We realize the pressure that this places on our host sites, community food banks and customers. We at Angel Food Ministries are truly heartbroken to have to cease operations but it has not compromised our faith in God or our commitment to helping those in need."
Angel Food was started in 1994 by pastors Joe and Linda Wingo with 34 families in Monroe, Ga. At its height, the organization grew through a network of over 5,000 churches to feed more than 500,000 families a month in 35 states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Kentucky and Indiana.
Angel Food was also a windfall for participating churches. For every box delivered, churches received $1 from the nonprofit. In Wednesday's statement, Angel Food said it has returned about $24 million to partner organizations.
The increased price of fuel and food, along with a growing number of customers who were unable to pay, contributed to a decline in sales, said Savage. In the span of four years, organizers said Angel Food's orders decreased from about 550,000 boxes a month to about 125,000 boxes a month.
A box would feed a family of four for about a week.
The ministry ran into trouble in 2009 when the FBI searched its offices and questions were raised about Angel Food's finances. Board members and former employers also filed a lawsuit accusing the leadership of using the nonprofit as a moneymaking venture.
The Wingos and their two sons were all on staff and had $500,000 yearly salaries.
The lawsuit was settled in 2009 with an exchange of money and promises to make changes to protect the charity's finances.
Angel Food spokesman Steve Savage said no charges were ever filed in the FBI investigation.
Schultheis said the explanation she was given for the high salaries was that the family went without pay for years and those rates were making up for it.
At one time there were multiple churches in the county participating in the program. St. Mary Catholic Church in Marietta ended its affiliation when it began to support the local Daily Bread Kitchen, said church member Janet Steinel.
Second Congregational secretary Virginia Lockhart said she worked with the program and purchased food through it.
"It was good prices; it was good food," she said.
Lockhart wants to see the church take up another service project aimed at addressing hunger to fill the void Angel Food leaves.
"We did this as a mission. We're on a mission to feed people," she said.