Do you know who the “Father of the Food Bank” was? John van Hengel was born in Waupun, Wisconsin, as the son of a nurse and the town pharmacist. He graduated from Lawrence College with a degree in Government. He then attended graduate school at University of Wisconsin but later moved to Southern California before completing his degree work. Like a lot of typical young adults he spent time as a “first rate beach bum”, he later studied broadcasting at UCLA. John married and had two sons. In 1960 he was divorced and headed back to Wisconsin. He endured partial paralysis after trying to break up a bar fight. He was sent to Arizona for rehabilitation through the guidance of Barrows Neurological Institute. John regained his strength swimming laps in a YMCA swimming pool and at the age of 44 became the oldest public lifeguard in Phoenix, Arizona.
All this seems to be an odd path to becoming the Father of all food banks. John took a vow of poverty upon starting his life in Phoenix as a deeply religious man, and began working at Immaculate Heart Church in Phoenix where he drove the bus and coached sports. He also began volunteering at the very busy St. Vincent de Paul Soup Kitchen. John bought an old milk delivery truck for $150 and used it to gather citrus fruit and other foods to bring to the soup kitchen. Every evening John would deliver any surplus to the homeless missions in downtown Phoenix. Searching for an efficient, less time consuming method of distributing this food, John approached Father Ronald Colloty from St. Mary’s Basilica in regards to setting up a warehouse where the missions could come and pick up the food. The church responded by loaning John $3000 and an inherited bakery building near skid row. John expanded his food resources upon a discovery behind local grocery stores. A destitute mother of 10 well fed children pointed out “a bank of food” from which she fed her family. This “second harvest” as it came to know was named at the time, St. Mary’s Food Bank in honor of the donation provided by St. Mary’s Basilica. John took no salary during his first decade at St. Mary’s. He wore secondhand clothes, got his food at the food bank and lived in a donated room above a garage.
Not everyone is called to a vow that can change the world by John van Hengel did. Imagine how Second harvest (now Feed America) has impacted society and the poor. Your life matters to someone. How you respond to God’s call makes all the difference.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Jesus (Matt 9:37-38