Just weeks after canceling food orders for September, a national food assistance group has announced it will cease operations permanently.
The Angel Food Ministry had worked with thousands of churches and nonprofit groups across the country, including about 30 in the Western New York area. For the past 17 years, the group provided grocery items at steeply discounted prices, which were available to anyone in need through a monthly order.
Cindy Re, a secretary at Victory Christian Church in Lockport, helped coordinate the program in the Niagara County region, where the church served as a central drop-off site for about 10 different churches.
"That's really sad. This was a ministry that was really a good assist for people in this economy," she said.
And it won't be just low-income families who will be affected. The program was open to anyone who wanted to participate, and once word got out, participation had increased significantly in recent years, Re said.
"We also found that the 'average Joe,' once they found out this was a ministry for anyone, that average families just started taking advantage of it as well," she said. "If you have kids at home, this was the extra stuff you wouldn't normally buy for yourself."
The first warning about the demise of the program came in early September, when Angel Food Ministries said financial difficulties would make it impossible to ship food to its network of 5,000 distribution sites in 45 states for the September cycle. This weekend, the organization posted a message on its website announcing its demise.
"Angel Food Ministries has considered many options regarding our future. At this time we regret to inform you that we have not found a solution that will allow Angel Food Ministries to continue to distribute food on a monthly basis and have decided to cease operations. We realize the pressure that this places on our host sites, community food banks and customers."
Based in Good Hope, Ga., the nonprofit Angel Food Ministries had revenues in 2009 of $132 million, according to the agency's most recently posted tax data. The company reported 811 employees and 178,500 volunteers. All operations in local markets were carried out by volunteers at churches and other partner groups.
Western New York providers say they'll work together to identify a solution.
"Any time we identify a gap in services - and this is definitely presenting one - we'll call the churches and get them together and see what can be done," said Jeffrey Pirrone, supervisor of the Mobile Safety-Net Team within the Basic Human Needs Initiative of the John R. Oishei Foundation.
"This is a huge service, and a very expensive service," he said. "We'll work with the food bank and make opportunities for churches to work with clients who will be left out of the loop."
Other churches in the region that participated included Wayside Presbyterian Church in Hamburg; Cazenovia Park Baptist Church and Victory Temple Church in Good in Christ in Buffalo; and the Wesleyan Church in Hamburg.
Pirrone said the organization will begin reaching out to churches that participated in the program as well as other providers to convene a meeting and begin a networking process so groups can determine how best to proceed.
"Ultimately, the goal down the road is to see if someone's willing to take on a program and see what assistance we can provide," he said. "First we need to get these organizations talking."