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How Food Banking Got Started

December 5, 2011

Hunger and Poverty are so intertwined that no one who tries to address either one disputes the connection. They are one and the same: feeding into each other to depress the human spirit. Mr. John van Hengel understood the connection between Hunger and Poverty intimately. At the ripe age of 44 he found himself in Phoenix, Arizona “volunteering” at a soup kitchen in exchange for a meal.

By2015:AMERICA Lead Organizer, Kokayi Nosakhere

It was 1965 and life was throwing everything it could at Mr. van Hengel. He was recovering from spinal surgery, which left him with “a locked neck, palsy and bad legs,” according to Washington Post reporter, Patricia Sullivan.

Poor as Mr. van Hengel was, he noticed others who accessed the soup kitchen’s resources were having a more difficult time than him. One day he observed a mother of 10 children accessing food discarded by supermarkets close to her house. Mr. van Hengel overcame his shock of seeing a mother engaged in such activity when he saw the condition of the food. Practically nothing was wrong with it.

Thanks to the FDA, USDA and display standards, Arizona supermarkets discarded food that the shipping process tarnished. Slightly dented cans were thrown away. So was milk too old to sell, but good enough to drink. In fact, a tremendous amount of food was being wasted in this manner.

Here was the opportunity Mr. van Hengel’s talents and skills had been waiting for. He was a former advertising man. Utilizing his salesmanship skills, he introduced himself to grocery store managers and convinced them to donate their discarded inventory to the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen.

It took a little time, but soon the soup kitchen had more food than it could distribute. A new problem arose: storage capacity.  What the soup kitchen could not use was given away to a shelter and other service agencies.

Again, it took  a little time, however, the idea caught on. Two years later, in 1967, John van Hengel founded the St. Mary’s Food Bank, the first – and ONLY – of its kind. With $3000, a donated bakery and a handful of volunteers, St. Mary’s distributed 250,000 pounds of food through 36 locations its first year.

In 1975, using a federal grant, Mr. van Hengel set up 18 more food banks.

In 1976, he founded America’s Second Harvest (currently Feeding America.)

In 1981, he “conceded that he was not a natural manager but a grassroots activist and entrepreneur. He spent the rest of his life creating food banks and food bank networks around the world.” – Washington Post.

Note: Mr. van Hengel had serious health problems. Some days he could barely communicate (neck injury) or walk, yet, we owe the Food Banking system currently employed in the United States today to him. Now, that’s hardcore.

Considering the resources we have access to: What do you think the current generation can do? We have able bodies. We have the internet. We have time, intelligence, talent and energy.


By2015:AMERICA Lead Coordinator, Kokayi Nosakhere, who was recently featured on the Abundance Child Network is available for presentations, organizing workshops, lectures on history/political science and short food-related projects. To contact Mr. Nosakhere simply email –

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