Since 1967, John van Hengel has been quietly feeding the East Valley and the rest of the world.
At 80, his pace has slowed. Using a walker to get around, his voice barely audible, the internationally known food bank founder is as humble as he is revered.
“We didn’t even have any idea what we were gonna get going,” van Hengel said from his office at St. Mary’s Food Bank in Phoenix. “There was no great vision. If the door opened, we all walked in. If it closed, we walked away.”
His pioneering work to feed the hungry spawned food banks in every state and food distribution networks around the world. Along the way, van Hengel created the largest hunger-relief organization in the country, America’s Second Harvest.
St. Mary’s now distributes more than 25 million pounds of food each year, including emergency food boxes to dozens of East Valley agencies, as part of a network that includes more than 200 regional food banks that feed 23 million Americans annually.
“I’ve never met anybody in the food banking industry who didn’t consider John as their mentor,” said George Pohlman, director of Mesa’s United Food Bank. “He knows how important his idea is.”
And he’s still going, eagerly directing young workers in Argentina and Africa as they set up food banks there and supervising mailings to agencies that hope to replicate van Hengel’s methods of collecting food from people and companies that have too much, and distributing it to those in need.
Those who know him say it was his groundbreaking idea, coupled with his skills at finding and nurturing people committed to his mission, that made van Hengel so successful.
He had known financial success in California, advancing in the Catalina sportswear company before a divorce sent him packing for his native Wisconsin in the late 1950s and changed his way of life.
Van Hengel took the most back-breaking work he could find, earning $1.50 an hour in a stone quarry and running with a rough crowd. He was partially paralyzed while breaking up a bar fight one night, and his doctor sent him to Arizona and Barrow’s Neurological Institute for rehabilitation.
A lifelong Catholic, van Hengel applied for a job at Immaculate Heart Church in Phoenix, used his marketing skills to promote Catholic retreats, drove the bus, coached youth sports and helped out in the busy St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen.
One day he noticed a woman going through a trash bin behind a supermarket.
“She was feeding 10 kids out of that Dumpster,” and feeding them well, he said.
He discovered that supermarkets and restaurants were throwing away enormous amounts of food every day while people in Maricopa County went hungry.
“We just went out and started asking for food,” he said. Soon he had more than the soup kitchen could handle. In 1967, St. Mary’s Catholic Church gave van Hengel $3,000 and a 5,000-square-foot abandoned bakery on South Central Avenue in Phoenix. The food bank was born.
One of his first clients was Alan Merrett, now a Sun Lakes resident but then a buyer for A.J. Bayless supermarkets. Merrett, 80, recalls the first time he saw van Hengel. “One afternoon we were closing up, and here comes this bum-looking guy walking through the warehouse,” Merrett said. “I said, ‘Go get that bum out of here.’ It was John van Hengel. He was looking for food.”
Merrett and A.J. Bayless became regular food bank contributors. After his retirement from the grocery chain in 1988, Merrett went to work for St. Mary’s Food Bank and, upon van Hengel’s recommendation, became its director soon after.
He oversaw the move in 1992 to the food bank's present location, a 120,000-square-foot warehouse in west Phoenix. “I saw what he was trying to do, and I thought it was such a great thing that I just wanted to be a part of it,” Merrett said.
Van Hengel won a federal grant to spread the food bank concept around the country. He launched America’s Second Harvest in 1976, securing huge donations from national corporations and distributing products to food banks nationally. By then, St. Mary’s was feeding people through hundreds of Valley agencies.
“I couldn’t believe how big it got,” van Hengel said, recalling 300 semi-truckloads of soup starter and 200 truckloads of grapefruit juice.
Scottsdale pharmacist Ken Micetic helped promote America’s Second Harvest around the country, traveling from Seattle to Florida to conduct workshops and launch food banks. Micetic also lobbied the state Legislature to pass a so-called “good Samaritan” law when he found that some food distributors had stopped contributing to St. Mary’s because of liability fears. He advised other states on similar legislation.
“Our bottom line was feeding people,” he said.
Van Hengel was known to wear donated clothes, and he still boasts that he’s never bought an article of clothing.
Sporting a worn Safeway shirt and sweat pants, van Hengel says his caregiver
calls him the cheapest man she’s ever met. Though he loves her cooking, he bemoans her shopping because they sometimes have to throw away food. “I’m used to being very, very frugal,” he said.
Van Hengel, who has won a roomful of prestigious awards, still comes into his office several mornings a week. To stop working, he said, would be like dying. And he figures he almost died once — when he had a heart attack in 2001.
“I’m going to go at this thing as hard as I can go, for as long as I can go.”