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Food for thought

Angel Food Ministries finds itself at the center of lawsuits

Associated Press/Photo by John Bazemore

Food for thought
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It has all the elements of a Shakespearean drama: power, money, religion, and sex. But is it The Tempest, or Much Ado About Nothing?

The answer to that question depends upon whom you ask.

At the center of the controversy is Angel Food Ministries. Founded in 1994, the Monroe, Ga., organization feeds poor families. But even though it calls itself a ministry, part of the controversy is whether it is really a very profitable business.

At first glance, Angel Food Ministries seems to have designed a great system to help the poor. It creates a menu designed to feed a family of four for one week. Then it buys food in bulk from manufacturers to fulfill the needs of that menu. The individual boxes are packed at AFM's huge warehouse and then shipped to churches in 35 states. The churches use volunteer labor to manage the distribution locally, usually selling the boxes for the same $30 they cost the churches from AFM. "By using the churches as a distribution point and cutting out the middleman," said Juda Engelmayer, spokesman for Angel Food Ministries, "we can cut the price of the food dramatically."

AFM says it feeds more than 500,000 families a month with this system, and it now has an annual budget of more than $100 million. Engelmayer claims AFM is "Tyson Chicken's No. 2 customer in the nation."

But there's another side to Angel Food Ministries, critics say. Two board members, Craig Atnip and David Prather, filed suit against AFM, alleging financial improprieties on the part of Joe and Linda Wingo, who founded the ministry. According to 2006 documents filed with the IRS, the Wingos and their two sons Andrew and Wesley took a total of more than $2 million in compensation from AFM. They also held four of nine board seats.

In addition, a former employee, Tioni King (now Tioni Barish), filed a suit against Andrew Wingo, alleging sexual harassment while he was an officer at Angel Food Ministries. The 37-page complaint, obtained by WORLD, was filed Feb. 27 and accuses Andrew Wingo-among other things-of sending emails with nude photographs of himself to King. The suit also names other Wingo family members and AFM as co-defendants. In addition to the accusations against Andrew Wingo, the suit claims the co-defendants "condoned, adopted, and ratified . . . Andrew Wingo's conduct, making them liable" as well.

AFM spokesman Engelmayer told WORLD that the accusations in both suits were unfounded. "Andrew Wingo hasn't been an employee since September 2007," he said. However, the accusations in the suit-with the exception of King's firing in October 2007-all would have taken place while Andrew Wingo was an employee of Angel Food Ministries. Engelmayer also said Prather and Atnip's lawsuit against the Wingos and AFM was dismissed on March 6. It was, but the judge required sweeping changes in the operation of the ministry. Among them: A private plane that Joe Wingo owned and rented to AFM at a reported $10,000 a month profit would now be assigned to the ministry directly. All company credit cards used by the Wingos would be canceled, and the organization must undergo a forensic audit.

The drama is likely not over. Because AFM accepts food stamps, federal and state officials are now interested in the organization's activities. Both the IRS and the FBI initiated an investigation into AFM, and the sexual harassment suit is still pending. In addition, the large salaries and massive profits from the sale of the food boxes-as much as $20 million in one year-raise the question of how much AFM principals are helping the poor, and how much they're helping themselves.

Rusty Leonard Rusty is a former WORLD contributor.


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