Two interesting individuals made the Tribune’s front page in the past few days.
One was a modestly talented and vastly overhyped young entertainer who arrived on the front page because she went shopping in Scottsdale.
People are interested in such celebrities, regardless of whether they have made any genuine contributions to society, and fans go bananas trying to get pictures and autographs.
The other was John van Hengel, of whom few people have ever heard and whose autograph is rarely, if ever, sought. Yet Hengel’s contributions to humanity will linger long after the famous young entertainer has become the answer to a trivia question.
Van Hengel, profiled touchingly on Monday in a story by the Tribune’s Mary K. Reinhart, is the man who came up with the idea of food banks.
It is such a profoundly simple idea that one wonders why it hadn’t been tried before. But it took van Hengel, watching a woman digging for food in a Dumpster in the late 1960s, to put two things together.
One was that businesses were discarding obscene amounts of food every day. The other was that people were hungry.
So he simply began asking stores and restaurants for their surplus commodities, and storing them for distribution to the needy. What started as St. Mary’ Food Bank inspired similar efforts across the country and the world. It also spawned America’s Second Harvest, a network of food banks and other agencies that helps feed 23 million people a year.
It is of note that van Hengel did all this as a private person, not a government bureaucrat, and the effectiveness of his efforts speaks volumes about what can happen when noble-minded people band together without waiting for politicians to get off the dime. In fact, government’s main role in this success story has been to get out of the way, as it did when revising liability laws to facilitate donations by some distributors who had been worried about lawsuits.
Van Hengel is 80 now, and still pressing ahead with his life’s work. “I’m going to go at this thing as hard as I can go, for as long as I can go,” he told Reinhart.
This means he’ll still be showing up around town, doing good works and teaching others to do the same. No paparazzi will flock around him. But if you want his autograph, he won’t be hard to catch; he’s using a walker these days.