Copyright 2005 The San Diego
The San Diego
February 27, 2005 Sunday
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A-1
HEADLINE: Food bank practices more
loose than first disclosed
McDonald, STAFF WRITER, Union-Tribune library researcher Cecelia Iniguez
contributed to this report.
Management practices at the San Diego Food
Bank were much looser than previously disclosed, according to documents and
other information obtained last week by The San Diego Union-Tribune.
In addition, food bank officials acknowledged late last
week that six of the top seven participants in the charitable food-distribution
program have now been expelled, suspended or had their accounts placed on hold.
Combined, those obscure ministries collected 638 tons of groceries meant for the
poor -- almost 45 percent of the program's goods handed out in the last six
months of 2004.
The newspaper reported Feb. 6 that the
food bank's charitable food distribution program had delivered hundreds of tons
of products to little-known charities without making sure the merchandise was
given to the needy.
Since then, the newspaper has
o A pastor who withdrew more goods than
any other agency operates a retail store in Imperial Beach. Owning a grocery
business is a major breach of food bank policy.
Internal food bank documents show that for years one questionable charity was
allowed to rack up tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fees, another
violation. At one point, Zeev Buchler's tiny nonprofit owed nearly $51,000.
o A San Diego businessman told the Union-Tribune last week
that he routinely purchased food bank products from dishonest ministries and
sold them in a discount store he owned.
businessman said he stopped the practice four years ago, after his conscience
got the better of him. He said he told food bank officials what he had done and
named the charity operators who sold him canned goods, laundry soap and other
donations that were supposed to go to needy families.
But even after his confession, he said, the food bank allowed the
violators to continue withdrawing merchandise.
stepped up to the plate four years ago and nothing was being done about it,"
said the shopkeeper, who asked that his name not be published for fear of
retribution from food bank cheats or from prosecutors. It is a federal crime to
sell donations designated for hunger-relief efforts.
"These guys had vans in the streets selling that merchandise," he
The newspaper's investigation previously found
that food bank officials failed to tighten oversight even after two employees
and independent auditors warned managers that theft was a serious problem.
Donations were handed over to people whose backgrounds
include a criminal conviction, multiple lawsuits, court orders and bankruptcy.
Two participants were involved in businesses that sold groceries, the
Food bank officials continue to
downplay the extent of the problems, saying they were limited to relatively few
organizations and that officials did their best to respond to reports of
Peter Callstrom, hired as the food bank
general manager last month, declined to discuss the agency's prior business
practices. "The past is past," he said. "I'm looking forward to the future."
Officials from the Neighborhood House Association, which
runs the food bank and other social-service programs in San Diego County,
steered questions to a public-relations consultant.
Scott Maloni of Public Policy Strategies said Friday that the apparent
food bank abuse was "isolated" and involved only "a handful of groups."
But the documents obtained last week show that theft and
inadequate oversight have been a persistent issue at the food bank for at least
Buchler, for example, was granted what
amounted to a revolving charge account at the food bank, records show. Other
agencies also were permitted to take food without paying all the fees, which
help cover the food bank's operational costs.
Aguirre, the pastor of a South Bay ministry called New Life International,
collected 225 tons of food bank products in the last half of 2004, more than any
other agency. He runs Buy 4 Less in an Imperial Beach strip mall, according to
court records. The small shop offers many of the same items distributed by the
Aguirre has collected an additional 15 tons
from the food bank since Jan. 1.
On Thursday, the food
bank said it placed New Life's account "on hold" Feb. 9 -- two weeks after food
bank acting general manager Jim Greene had personally vouched for Aguirre.
Aguirre said he has never profited from his food bank
withdrawals, and added that he is meeting with the food bank this week to sort
Auditors from America's Second Harvest,
the national food-distribution charity that sanctions the San Diego Food Bank
and 210 other affiliates, cited the local food bank last year for shoddy
record-keeping and failing to make sure goods were going where they are
Historically, the food bank has invested less
effort investigating where donations end up than in moving goods through its
Miramar warehouse. Most goods handed out in the charitable food program are
donated by manufacturers who receive tax breaks of up to half the products'
The San Diego Food Bank distributes more
than 6,500 tons of food and groceries each year.
charitable food effort, the most popular of the agency's four programs, gives
away approximately 2,500 tons a year. All of it is free, but participants pay a
shared maintenance fee of up to 18 cents a pound.
Buchler, who operated a charity called Chabad Chai, repeatedly declined
requests for an interview to discuss where he got the money to pay his fees,
which some years came to more than $100,000.
records show Buchler was being sued for back rent on a discount shop he ran on
El Cajon Boulevard at the same time he owed the San Diego Food Bank tens of
thousands of dollars.
Rabbi Josef Fradkin said Buchler
was a longtime volunteer for Chabad of San Diego, the well-known Jewish center
that runs a synagogue and a private school in Scripps Ranch and other
Chabad removed Buchler from all food bank
accounts last month, hours after the Union-Tribune asked Fradkin about where the
donations were being distributed. Buchler still owes the food bank $1,200,
Chabad of San Diego put Buchler in
charge of a food bank account it opened in the late 1980s to assist Russian
immigrant families. But the program has been inactive for more than a decade,
Chabad officials said they had no idea
that Buchler was still withdrawing huge amounts of food and other products from
the food bank. However, a July 2000 letter from the food bank to Rabbi Yonah
Fradkin, Josef's father, specifically called on the elder Fradkin to help the
food bank collect almost $40,000 Buchler owed at that time.
Josef Fradkin said last week that Chabad responded to the letter by
telling the food bank it wasn't responsible for the debt.
"What was alarming at that time was that we did not know this was
happening," he said. "When (the food bank) came to us asking for payment, they
were told very clearly that this was not a Chabad operation."
The Chabad also directed the food bank to close any and all Chabad
accounts, Fradkin said.
"Having not heard from them in
five years, we can assume that this was not a problem," he said.
The food bank is waiting for results of another audit performed by
America's Second Harvest this month. Callstrom has pledged to make those
Union-Tribune library researcher
Cecelia Iniguez contributed to this report.
The Union-Tribune's special report on the San
Diego Food Bank can be found at uniontribune.com/news/more.html
Jeff McDonald: (619) 542-4585; email@example.com
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