But Why the Hungry?

“But Why the Hungry?”: One Man’s Dream Spreads From Phoenix Around the World

Is it really possible for one person to take on a huge problem and make a difference in finding a solution? What type of person does it take to make a significant impact? Hungry? We’ve all had the “I need a snack” hunger or the “I’ve just finished practice and I’m starving!” feeling of being hungry. But how many of us have gone for weeks never feeling full, or known that there will not be enough food for everyone in our family group to eat that day? That type of hunger is not just a Third World problem. Even in the food-rich United States, the number of children and adults suffering from hunger daily is larger than the population of many of our states!

Can one person make a difference? What if that person has the burdens of poverty, poor health, and a string of failed relationships and lost jobs spanning half their life? It would seem an impossible task for such a person to turn the dream of helping to feed the hungry into a reality. Yet that dream would become a reality spreading from one empty bakery in Phoenix, Arizona to thousands of locations around the world.

The dreamer was John van Hengel. He came to Phoenix in the mid-1960s, after a long string of disappointments and bad luck. During the 1940s and 1950s, van Hengel had been successful in advertising and sporting goods sales in California and Wisconsin. But setbacks — job losses, a divorce, and a back injury — caused John to seek a new start in the warmth of Arizona in the mid-1960s. John’s finances were minimal. He lived in an apartment over a garage, got his clothes at the Salvation Army, and described himself as “the oldest public pools lifeguard in Phoenix.” Volunteering at the soup kitchen run by St. Vincent de Paul entitled him to receive a nourishing meal each day. That also introduced him to other people who were in even more difficult situations. One day while working at the soup kitchen, John met a single parent who was helping to feed her family by retrieving the packaged food thrown away by grocery stores.

John van Hengel was a very ordinary man, with the bad habits and vices common to many of us. Fortunately, he was also an extraordinary man, with the ability to develop a unique idea, which could benefit others. Instead of relying on small food pantries at local churches and charitable facilities, van Hengel envisioned a food “bank,” where “deposited” donations could be “withdrawn” by people needing food. He worked with determination to bring this idea from a dream to a thriving organization.

Speaking in front of large groups made John uncomfortable, but he relied on his experience in sales to contact individual businesses, asking for donations or contributions of products. He was determined and persuasive in his explanation of how a food bank would work.
Food producers became convinced the cost of storing or disposing of unsalable products could be cut by donating the food. Donations would be safely handled and given away, not resold. Businesses would benefit through tax breaks and the positive publicity earned from charitable contributions. In 1967, a downtown Phoenix church donated an abandoned bakery owned by the church. Church members donated $3,000 to pay the utility bills for a year. St. Mary’s Food Bank, named after the parish where he volunteered, was born. John van Hengel used his own pickup truck to gather donated fresh produce from Arizona’s farm fields and citrus groves. In the first year, St. Mary’s Food Bank gave over 250,000 pounds of food to 36 charities helping to feed the hungry in the Phoenix area.

By the mid-1970’s, America’s Second Harvest was incorporated to manage the growing number of Food Banks. The new Tax Reform Act made it even more advantageous for businesses to donate inventory overstocks by allowing them larger tax breaks for donations to charities. Railroad cars full of food were heading to Phoenix. But this created a problem for van Hengel. Overseeing the donations and federal grants was beyond his managerial skills. In 1981, van Hengel was removed as the executive director of America’s Second Harvest. Instead of isolating himself after this embarrassment, John van Hengel put his focus on his dream, not himself. He enthusiastically used his knowledge and experience to assist others in setting up food banks. Hundreds of food banks throughout the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America were developed with his help.

In 1992, van Hengel went to Washington, D.C. as the Guest of Honor at the Kennedy Center. He received the America’s Award. This award has often been called the Nobel Prize for Goodness. At sixty-nine, van Hengel continued with his mission to help feed the hungry in the United States and the world. Retirement would have interfered with this important mission. His involvement continued, in spite of Parkinson’s disease, until shortly before his death on October 5, 2005. That week, this Arizonan’s story was reported in the nation’s major newspapers: the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and the New York Times.

Each year, the Feeding America Network holds a Summit and gives their highest honor to a person who has made a significant impact in the fight against hunger in America. That honor is the John van Hengel Award.
John once made the comment, “The poor may always be with us. But why the hungry?” He lived to see his efforts result in the distribution of millions of pounds of food and the support of over 50,000 charities operating food pantries, soup kitchens, emergency shelters and after-school programs. Today, these operations function and celebrate their success with the help of tens of thousands of volunteers, ranging from adolescents to senior citizens.

Can one person make a difference? Ask those volunteers. Ask someone whose family is less hungry thanks to the dream and efforts of John van Hengel.

(Sources: St. Mary’s Food Bank Newsletters, Washington Post, Oct 5, 2005 New York Times, Oct. 8, 2005 LA Times, Oct. 9, 2005 Chicago Tribune, Oct. 12, 2005)

  1. What was your first reaction to the statements about the number of hungry children in the United States?
  2. How many food banks are in Arizona? What volunteer opportunities are there in a food bank?
    Use the internet to research answers to one or more of these questions.
  3. What is the difference between the terms mass starvation, malnutrition, and
    food insecurity? How can an American suffering from food insecurity be identified?
  4. If a person suffers from food insecurity, which ways of obtaining food sources are socially acceptable versus unacceptable?
    How many Arizonans/Americans are suffering from food insecurity?
    http://www.cwru.edu/med/epidbio/mphp439/Hunger.htm http://www.worldhunger.org/contributefood_uslowfs.htm
    2b. Which 9 states in the U.S. have the highest rates of food insecurity?
    http://feedingamerica.org/hunger -in-america/hunger -facts/hunger -and-poverty- statistics.aspx 2c. What are the similar conditions in these 9 states?