Food bank dispute takes a bite out of donations

LISBON – The Second Harvest Food Bank has suspended distributions to the Community Action Agency’s food pantry because of a disagreement over how the CAA administered its own food give-away program.

Second Harvest solicits, stores and distributes donated and purchased food, which it gives away or sells at a discount to food pantries in Columbiana County as well as Mahoning and Trumbull counties. The CAA is one of 27 pantries in this county that contracts with Second Harvest for food and other items.

CAA also provides food and items to some of the local pantries itself through a program funded with a federal emergency food grant. When the grant funding was eliminated, the CAA received permission late last year to use some of the other federal monies it receives ($128,000) to supplement the agency’s food distribution program. The money could also be used to obtain personal hygiene and household cleaning products for income-eligible residents and their families.

The money went to the 13 local food pantries who are part of the CAA’s pantry network, but the food and other items were only available through the four Save-A-Lot supermarkets in the county.

Second Harvest Executive Director Michael Iberis was unaware of the CAA program until earlier this year when he was contacted by some of food pantries in the county who were upset with how the program was set up.

Second Harvest provides food to 27 food pantries in the county, including the 13 used by the CAA, and Iberis said some of the pantries also wondered why the CAA chose not to provide funding to all. Not only that, Iberis said the list excluded some of the pantries with the highest usage in terms of food distributed and people served.

Iberis said he and the food pantry representatives who contacted him were also troubled by the CAA decision to designate the Save-A-Lots as the only supermarkets in the county that could participate in its program. He said the pantries also complained that Second Harvest was excluded from participation, even though half its food is available for free and most of the rest can be purchased by food pantries at 10 cents on the dollar.

“In our opinion, it appears public monies were not fairly distributed or used in the most efficient manner,” he said. “A grievous injustice was done to the people of Columbiana County that are struggling to put enough food on their table.”

Iberis also noted that the county Job and Family Services received the largest allocation of the pantries used by the CAA. The JFS serves as the distributor under the CAA’s food pantry contract with Second Harvest.

After Second Harvest suspended its contract with the CAA, Iberis met on May 6 with CAA Executive Director Carol Bretz and CAA Finance Director Wendy Saul. He said the meeting did not go well and the dispute remains unresolved.

This was followed by a May 16 letter co-authored by Bretz and JFS Director Eileen Dray-Bardon and sent to local food pantries explaining what had transpired. They said this supplemental program was undertaken to offset cuts in federal funding the CAA receives for its emergency food program.

As for the decision to designate only the Save-A-Lots, Bretz and Dray-Bardon said the supermarkets “offer reasonably priced food items, were willing to allow the pantries to charge items under a purchase order number and bill the CAA. There are multiple locations in the county so each pantry could easily access the stores.”

Bretz, in an email to the newspaper, responded to some of the other issues raised by Iberis. She said the money went to the food pantries they have agreements with and defended the decision to earmark the largest portion of the money for the pantry the CAA operates in conjunction with the JFS.

“To our knowledge it is one of the largest food pantries in the county and is open five days per week, eight hours per day. No other food pantry to my knowledge is open that often,” she said of the CAA/JFS pantry.

As for the decision to contract with the Save-A-Lots, Bretz said they have used the supermarkets for years as part of the CAA’s food pantry program to supplement what they obtain from Second Harvest.

“Products we want are not always available in the amounts we request. We wanted to spend the money in the county because the (federal) funding is allocated geographically and intended to be used in the county it’s allocated,” she said, adding the Save-A-Lots “are locally owned businesses that employ local people. What’s not to like about that? We try to support the local business community whenever we can.”

In addition to regular food items and personal care items and cleaning supplies, the federal money also paid for 800 turkey and ham vouchers and gas cards to be distributed around the holidays. Bretz said Second Harvest lacked the quantity of hams and turkeys to guarantee availability.

“Moreover, if folks had to travel to Youngstown to redeem the vouchers at Second Harvest, few households would have gone,” she said.

Meanwhile, Iberis contacted the Ohio Development Services Agency, which administers the CSBG grant program, and asked them to review the matter. Bretz noted the DSA signed off on the program before it was implemented.

The May 16 letter from Bretz and Dray-Bardon said Iberis told them at the May 6 meeting one of Second Harvest’s board members suggested to him that someone “must have” been bought off. Iberis has denied saying any such thing.

“This investigation is not warranted and we strongly refute Mr. Iberis’ allegation that we have inappropriately used federal grant funds, or accepted any kind of ‘kickback’ from the Save-A-Lot stores,” Bretz and Dray-Bardon said in their letter.

Bretz later told the newspaper it is up to the CAA board of directors how they spend their money, and those decisions are reviewed and approved by the state.

“This was an internal matter and Mr. Iberis has no business trying to interfere with our agency or punish us for implementing this initiative,” Bretz said.

CAA attorney, Shawna L’Italien contacted Iberis, asking if it was Second Harvest’s intent to terminate the agreement. L’Italien also stated the CAA wanted to continue to contract with Second Harvest and encouraged Iberis to contact Bretz or have their attorney contact her. Iberis responded by saying they are always open to meeting with Bretz to resolve the dispute.

Bretz said suspension of the agreement means the CAA’s food pantry will no longer benefit from the deep discounts available through Second Harvest.

“By refusing to work with us he is hurting the people who come to our food pantry. We see about 240 households per month comprised of about 600 people. That’s 5,000 people annually,” she said.