Angel Food Ministries Blames Economy for September Shutdown

Angel Food Ministries (AFM) says that dealing with the financial strain of such a poor economy has left the organization unable to distribute food to its host sites that offer discounted food products to hundreds of thousands of people nationwide.

AFM is a Georgia-based, non-profit ministry that offers boxes of discounted food as a means of helping those who live in poverty. It was founded in 1994 by Pastors Joe and Linda Wingo. Although there aren't any restrictions on who can purchase from them, their goal is to provide affordable food to those in need. Approximately 500,000 such families purchase from Angel Food Ministries each month.

“Like the thousands of businesses in America that have endured one of the worst recessions in the past 100 years, we too have faced operational and financial challenges,” reads a message on the organization's website. “We have every intention to continue offering great food at great prices in the coming months and are considering ways to reorganize or restructure our ministry.”

Jim Gindlesberger, associate pastor of Lakeview Christian Church in Akron, Ohio, oversees the Angel Food Ministries at his church. His church has been a host site for three years and serves around 30 people per month through the ministry.

“I was shocked,” he said, when he first found out that he wouldn't be able to provide food this month. “And then the reality of 'what do I do next' sets in, because I've got people that placed orders and we have several people that are pretty dependent upon it."

This month's shutdown of distribution renews questions concerning the organization's somewhat murky financial and legal past. While some accept that the American economy is to blame, others wonder whether greed among the organization's top leaders led to this month's food stoppage.

Significant wage increases for AFM's top leaders in 2006 attracted attention from critics of excessive compensation. Joe Wingo earned just under $70,000 in 2005, but one year later, he earned a whopping $588,000. Wife Linda, and sons Andy and Wesley, also received significant pay increases, each of them having earned under $100,000 in 2005 but earning $450,000 or greater the following year.

AFM is on Ministry Watch's 2010 list of donor alerts, which is designed to warn donors of charities operating with “questionable practices.” The watchdog group warns AFM donors of an ongoing FBI investigation, stating that charities “do not normally raise the concern of the FBI and to do so should be a red flag for supporters.”

The FBI raided AFM's Monroe headquarters back in 2009, and was accompanied by U.S. Internal Revenue Service agents. At the time, investigators were not willing to comment on the search.

Ministry Watch also informed donors of a lawsuit and allegations of a settlement violation involving former board members and the ministry's top leadership.

The lawsuit filed in March 2009 by former AFM members and directors Craig Atnip and David “Tony” Prather attempted to have the Wingos removed from their controlling positions with the organization, accusing them of misappropriating funds that were supposed to be used for ministry.

The suit claimed the Wingos took over $2.7 million from the organization in the form of credit card purchases, a $600,000 “housing allowance” for Joe and Linda, and “tithe” from AFM to a church that Joe and his wife founded.

The Christian Post spoke with Atnip on Monday, even though he said he was not allowed to speak about the lawsuit. His only comment: “I had no reaction.”

The two sides eventually reached a settlement in a suit that Joe Wingo called a “power grab” by the former AFM members.

The settlement required AFM to end two questionable practices that have the appearance of “self-dealing.”

Self-dealing occurs when someone excessively profits from a business arrangement in which he operates both a nonprofit organization and for-profit corporation, and that do business with each other. The IRS may investigate and levy taxes against the nonprofit organization or revoke its tax-exempt status if found guilty of self-dealing.

The settlement permanently banned AFM from doing any business with Andrew Wingo’s company, Good Hope Foods Inc., and required that a corporate jet owned by Joe Wingo’s company, North Carolina Aviation Leasing, LLC, be transferred to AFM.

Joe Wingo earned nearly $700,000 in 2009. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that his organization laid off “dozens” of workers that same year, placing the blame on rising food costs and a decrease in boxed-food sales.

On Saturday, Della Villers, AFM's northeast regional vice president and minister of outreach, wrote an email to her region's host sites saying that she had lost her job, too.

“Please keep my family in your prayers as well as I also lost my ministry in AFM and my job," she wrote. "Self employed and cannot collect unemployment, so after 7 years I, like many Americans, will be looking for work.”

AFM's website says that they are in the process of giving refunds to those who have already ordered for September, but Villers' email paints a bleaker picture. Though some have received refunds, the email says, “with the current economical status of the ministry AFM will not be able to send any further credit or refund.”

“Pastor Joe Wingo does not want to give any false hope that he can continue to refund or credit customers now,” she added.

Barry Bowen contributed to this report

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