AIB Featured Business Leader – John Van Hengel

Last modified 03 May 2022
Categories: Business Leaders
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

What if the answer to relieving world hunger is not to produce more food, but to more effectively distribute it from where it’s in surplus, to where it’s most in need? Well, it was the entrepreneurship and passion of John Van Hengel which ignited a global movement towards responsible production and distribution of food, and the creation of ‘food banks’.

Today, food banks exist in many countries around the world including Australia, America, India, Russia and Brazil under an international body known as the Global Foodbanking Network (GFN). Global food banks operate on a simple concept – they offer a centralised distribution channel, which links the food industry’s surplus to a hungry community in desperate need. Like a bank, the idea is that companies and individuals “deposit” food and funds into an established food bank. Food banks then act as a pantry to charities and community groups; gifting them the ability to “withdraw” much needed resources to feed the hungry – at no cost.

In Australia today, 2.2 million individuals are living in poverty – and about half of them are children. Hunger is a hidden social crisis that not only affects the homeless, but also families, the elderly, single parents and the working poor who may have never dreamed of seeking food relief in the past. As Australia’s largest hunger relief organisation, Foodbank Australia provided those in need with almost 40 million meals in 2013 alone. It is the help of Foodbank Australia and all food banks around the globe, which provide those in desperate need with the security of knowing where their next meal will come from. Together we learn how this inspirational phenomenon all began, as we take a historical journey behind the ‘Father of Food Banking’; John Van Hengel.

Born in February 1932, John Van Hengel grew up in Winconsin, USA. He attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin before moving to California to study broadcasting at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

In the 1960’s after completing his studies, John decided to move back to Wisconsin to work at a rock quarry. After attempting to break up a fight at a bar, he suffered a terrible spinal injury and became partly paralysed. In search for rehabilitation, he moved to Phoenix Arizona where the warm, dry climate would help to improve his health. Little did John know that his accident and subsequent move to Arizona would be a step towards a bigger journey in helping many more people than just himself.

After regaining his strength, John began volunteering at St. Vincent de Paul to aid the collection of food donations for the needy soup kitchen patrons. On a daily basis, John would gather the leftover food from St. Vincent de Paul and deliver it to homeless missions in neighbouring areas. John knew that he could help more people in need, but he needed to improve the efficiency of his distribution method and find a more inexpensive way to source food.

It was only when John met a mother of 10 children living in poverty when the idea of foodbanking really came to fruition. He saw her rummaging through supermarket bins in efforts to feed her hungry family. These bins were filled with a surplus of dented food cans, leaky bags of rice and sugar and other non-perishable foods that supermarkets discarded after deeming them unsaleable. The mother of 10 called the bin her “bank of food” which provided her and her family with means to survive.

In 1967, with the help of St. Mary’s Basilica, the first food bank was born. In its first year of operation, it was run by John Van Hengel and only a few volunteers who managed to collect and help distribute more than 250,000 pounds of food to 36 social service agencies. In 1975, the concept of Foodbanking spread across America, and many cities began to establish their own food banks. In 1992, the phenomenon came to Australia and continues to inspire the world.

Sadly in 2005, John Van Hengel passed away; but his legacy, passion and vision to alleviate world hunger still stands strong. The business model he created is reason why millions of Australian’s and countless citizens of the world receive the nourishment they rely on to survive.

In the words of the man himself; “it’s amazing how many people are being fed because of this crazy little thing we started” – John van Hengel.

There are many lessons that businesspeople can learn from the non-profit sector. What do you think of the food bank story, and the persistence of John van Hengel? Are you involved with any causes or charities – and has it changed the way you run your business? Let us know in the comments!

This article was written by Tina Beatrice on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB.

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