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AFM headquarters in Monroe, Ga.
Associated Press/Photo by Mandi SingerI (Covington News)
AFM headquarters in Monroe, Ga.

Up from the ashes

Money | Angel Food Ministries disappeared amid corruption, but a smaller and leaner ministry is taking its place

Issue: "Unstoppable?," April 20, 2013

Georgia-based Angel Food Ministries (AFM) started as a great idea: Buy large quantities of food in bulk and sell it to poor families cheaply, using churches as distribution points. By cutting out almost all retail and distribution costs, AFM could provide a family of four with a week of food for as little as $30.

The system worked almost too well. Founded in 1994, AFM grew explosively. By 2008 it claimed to feed more than 500,000 families a month and had an annual budget of more than $100 million. But former board member Tony Prather said “greed and corruption set in.” In 2006, founders Joe and Linda Wingo and their children took more than $2 million in compensation from AFM, and used the ministry’s planes, intended for rapid food distribution, for private use. When a former employee filed a 2009 sexual harassment claim against one of the sons, Andrew Wingo, WORLD began to report on the ministry’s problems, which soon exploded into a national scandal.

A lot has happened since then. Because AFM accepted federal funds, the FBI opened an investigation in 2009. The negative publicity—and a lawsuit filed by Prather and another board member, Craig Atnip—caused the ministry to implode. In September 2011, it shut down for good. On Feb. 25, AFM founders Joe and Linda Wingo, along with their son Andy, pleaded guilty to federal charges that included money laundering. A judge will sentence them on May 29. Joe and Andy Wingo face a potential seven-year sentence, plus fines. Linda Wingo will likely pay a fine and serve probation.

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But this ministry’s story didn’t end there. Prather started One Harvest Food Ministries from the ashes of AFM. “The original idea was a good one,” Prather said. “We felt like there was a way to do the ministry and do it right.” Prather says One Harvest feeds approximately 6,000 families in 11 states, on a budget of about $3 million per year.

That’s a fraction of the size of AFM but, according to Prather, getting too big too fast was part of Angel Food’s problem: “Slow growth is to our advantage.”

Lessons learned

Greg Schneider/Genesis Photos

Lots of financial institutions staggered during the Great Recession, and a record number fell into insolvency. But the banking sector seems to be recovering. In the first quarter of this year, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has only four institutions on its list of failed banks, compared to 50 in the first quarter of 2010.

One institution that has taken a giant step back from the brink is the Evangelical Christian Credit Union (ECCU). When we profiled the organization in 2009, it faced a rapidly rising number of foreclosures and—perhaps more ominously—it had modified terms on more than $140 million in loans.

But according to spokesman Jac La Tour, the nation’s largest credit union serving the evangelical community turned a corner in 2012. An improving economy helped, but actions ECCU took helped ward off disaster. The credit union dramatically increased its allowances for loan losses—more than $20 million in 2012 alone—and, according to La Tour, “We created a team to work with struggling ministries that had never seen an economy like what we experienced in the last four years.”

The results have been noticeable. After posting a loss of more than $11 million in 2011, ECCU expects to earn about $2.4 million in 2012.

ECCU is now a smaller institution than it was in 2009, with profits nowhere near pre-recession levels. But its net worth climbed this year, to $88.6 million, allowing it to keep its rating of “well capitalized” by the National Credit Union Association. “Our ministry clients learned some lessons,” said La Tour, “and we learned some lessons, too.” —W.C.S. 

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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