ATLANTA — Angel Food Ministries is going out of business after 17 years of providing discounted groceries to needy families across the country, including in Gainesville, citing the economic downturn affecting many of the organization's customers as its downfall.
The multi-million dollar food nonprofit says it will cease operations immediately, according to a statement provided to Associated Press.
"Angel Food has not been immune from the same economic and market conditions that led to the loss of other food ministries," the statement reads. "We realize the pressure that this places on our host sites, community food banks and customers. We at Angel Food Ministries are truly heartbroken to have to cease operations but it has not compromised our faith in God or our commitment to helping those in need."
Angel Food was started in 1994 by pastors Joe and Linda Wingo with 34 families in Monroe. At its height, the organization grew through a network of over 5,000 churches to feed more than 500,000 families a month in 35 states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Illinois, New Jersey, California, Kentucky and Indiana.
A Gainesville location operated at New Hope United Methodist Church on Dawsonville Highway.
There was no income requirement to participate, but the program was aimed at families in need.
Typically, people could place orders of multi-meal boxes of meat, vegetables, fruit and other staples from a menu that varied monthly. The food cost between 30 and 50 percent less than what they would typically pay at a grocery store.
Angel Food was also a windfall for participating churches. For every box delivered, churches received $1 from the nonprofit. In Wednesday's statement, Angel Food said it has returned about $24 million to partner organizations.
The ministry ran into trouble in 2009 when the FBI searched its offices and questions were raised about Angel Food's finances. Board members and former employers also filed a lawsuit accusing the leadership of using the nonprofit as a moneymaking venture.
The Wingos and their two sons were all on staff and had $500,000 yearly salaries.
The lawsuit was settled in 2009 with an exchange of money and promises to make changes to protect the charity's finances.
Angel Food spokesman Steve Savage said no charges were ever filed in the FBI investigation.
According to an earlier statement posted on the Angel Food website, the organization has issued full refunds to most of its customers for scheduled September deliveries.
The increased price of fuel and food, along with a growing number of customers who were unable to pay, contributed to a decline in sales, Savage said. In the span of four years, organizers said Angel Food's orders decreased from about 550,000 boxes a month to about 125,000 boxes a month.
A box would feed a family of four for about a week.
Last week, the Census Bureau released new figures showing that nearly 1 in 6 Americans lives in poverty - a record 46.2 million people.
Brian Stroka started a distribution center at Moselle Memorial Baptist Church in Moselle, Miss., in March 2010. He serves between 15 and 30 people a month and was hoping Angel Food would stay afloat. He said he enjoyed working with the group.
"It is heartbreaking, but we'll find other ways to serve," Stroka said Wednesday. "And there's no doubt that they'll find other ways to serve. The need's got to be met whether Angel Food is there or not, so we're going to meet them."
Times staff contributed to this report.