In the seemingly genteel world of food charity, hunger-relief advocates are perceived as big-hearted humanitarians all rowing in the same direction.

But lately, as need increases while food supplies contract, people more accustomed to fighting hunger now battle among themselves - do-gooder vs. do-gooder.

What's developing locally is a noisy quarrel between two altruistic camps: those who help the hungry in Chester County, and the hunger-relief behemoth, Philabundance, based in South Philadelphia and serving nine counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Perceived as playing the gentleman's game of charity with aggressive Philly street rules, Philabundance is being excoriated by a Chester County legislator and a core of volunteers for moving food donated by local supermarkets out of the county and diverting it to slake Philadelphia's endless hunger.

Some also say that Philabundance is hindering the growth of the Chester County Food Bank, founded by a scion of the Tylenol fortune in one of America's richest counties, plagued lately by skyrocketing poverty rates.

Still others deride Philabundance for poaching food from fellow food banks - an accusation its executive director, Bill Clark, unequivocally denies.

While Clark admits his hard-nosed, for-profit approach rankles the nonprofit world, he insists it's the only way to feed a region short on meat, vegetables, and hope.

Just as "you wouldn't want the Red Cross to run the blood supply on good intentions alone," Clark said, it would be folly to manage food charity in anything other than a businesslike manner.

"The heroes and saints in the hunger-relief world who came up in a compassionate, faith-based culture chafe at that," said Clark, 61, a Springfield, Delaware County, native who once worked in the food industry, and has run Philabundance since 2001. "But it doesn't bother me that people don't like me."

Despite Clark's sharp elbows, some say, he deserves credit for helping to create America's first nonprofit supermarket in Chester City last year.

The regional food fight rages at a time when the federal government has reduced food-stamp benefits, and, advocates point out, the refrigerators of even some working people are depressingly empty.

Aware of local doings, New York-based national antihunger advocate Joel Berg had a question: "People are hungry," he said. "So why are we arguing about this stuff?"

'We're frustrated'

Free food isn't free. It works like this:

Food is donated at no charge to Philabundance from food manufacturers and supermarkets. (It also receives food from the U.S. government and food drives.)

Food pantries, typically run by volunteers in churches or storefronts on negligible budgets, must pay Philabundance for a good deal of this donated food - as much as 19 cents a pound. (There's no charge for produce.)

In some cases, Philabundance will buy food, then sell it to pantries at a little more than cost. Philabundance also charges pantries membership fees of about $75 a year.

The agency isn't making a profit. Those charges cover the cost of moving 30 million pounds of food a year across Philabundance's service area of 426 pantries, Clark said. They also pay for running an agency with nearly $50 million in expenses and more than 100 employees.

From the pantries' perspective, per-pound charges add up, especially if you're distributing 12,000 pounds of food a week, say the volunteers at the West Chester Food Cupboard in Chester County.

Philabundance connects pantries to designated supermarkets that donate some free food in a program known as Grocers Against Hunger.

But with need rising since the recession, the program's food isn't enough, volunteers say.

"We need to get more food from more stores, especially meat," said Cupboard volunteer Sam Wolfgong. "But Philabundance strictly controls store donations and is impeding us from feeding our people. We're frustrated."

For example, Wolfgong said, the West Goshen Acme is less than a mile from the Cupboard. But because of an arrangement between Acme and Philabundance, the Cupboard has been unable to get free meat from the West Goshen store, as it once did, he said.

Instead, Wolfgong said, if the pantry wants meat, it must wait for Philabundance to pick it up from the West Goshen store, then truck it to its South Philadelphia headquarters. There, the agency repackages it and trucks it back out to Chester County, where the Cupboard can claim it - at up to 19 cents a pound.

As a result of the changed relationship between the Cupboard and the store, Philabundance "destroyed . . . [the] spirit of local cooperation," State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) wrote in a letter last month to Jim Perkins, the president of Acme Markets in Malvern.

"Philabundance hasn't shown the respect and sensitivity it needs to," Dinniman said in an interview. He said the Cupboard should be free to make its own arrangements with supermarkets.

"Philabundance added to our burden," said Dinniman, a former Chester County commissioner who helped start an antihunger program. "I'm surprised by how assertive they've been, and how fast they jumped in where they're not needed."

The situation changed abruptly last week after an Inquirer reporter asked Philabundance and others about the arrangement. On Thursday, Perkins called The Inquirer to say that Cupboard volunteers would soon be permitted to pick up meat from the West Goshen store.

He said "hundreds" of pantries ask for meat and he can't accommodate them because he's fearful they might mishandle food and make people ill. But, Perkins added, he's satisfied that Philabundance has vetted the Cupboard.

On another matter, Wolfgong said it's an "ugly fact" that Philabundance transports "many supermarket resources out of our community and sends them to Philadelphia and other areas."

Dinniman and Wolfgong also complained that Philabundance-sponsored appeals for fund-raising at supermarket checkout lines are misleading, saying that all contributions benefit "local" people.

In truth, Dinniman said, "all money donated goes directly to Philabundance." Clark acknowledged that, saying that "local does not mean" that contributions "stay in that town." Local means regional, he said.

'It's not fair'

The Cupboard isn't the only food agency complaining about Philabundance, though most are loath to criticize it publicly.

Gigi Moffett, director of the Narberth Community Food Bank in Montgomery County, said she refuses to use Philabundance because she can't afford it.

And, she added, "they're putting a lock on all supermarkets they have an agreement with. It's not fair or honest."

She said Montgomery County supermarket food must remain in the county, as suburban poverty rises.

For his part, Clark said Philabundance shares supermarket food throughout the region wherever need exists.

He said Philabundance doesn't contract with or "lock up" stores, compelling them to work only with him.

The stores choose to deal with Philabundance, he said, because it's a trusted steward that follows industry guidelines to safely manage food.

These rules are stipulated by Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief agency in the country. Philabundance is one of 203 food banks nationwide that belong to Feeding America, a $5 billion-a-year charity.

And, Clark said, it's simply easier for a store to deal with a single entity like Philabundance than to work with hundreds of smaller pantries.

Others agree.

"Big institutions want only to work with agencies that have training programs on how to handle food," said Mary Summers, a food expert at the University of Pennsylvania. "I tend to be impressed with Philabundance having set up a big system. And that may mean small providers may feel they've been treated in arrogant ways."

Chris Brand, a spokesman for Giant Food Stores in Carlisle, said the so-called cold chain - keeping donated meat safely frozen from a Giant supermarket to a pantry - is of paramount importance. That's why Philabundance is vital, he said.

"How do I know a pantry is keeping the food frozen?" Brand asked. "Philabundance has the capacity to accept our meat in freezer trucks, and we know it'll stay frozen."

'Parochial'

Chester County is a "very parochial" place, said Karen Simmons, president and CEO of the Chester County Community Foundation, which helps guide local philanthropy.

"There's a proprietary sense we take care of the poor in our own county," whose numbers have increased 90 percent since 2000.

This translates into a simple message to Philabundance: Stay out.

"We don't need as much help because we're self-sufficient," Dinniman said. "If only Philabundance would give up its bureaucratic hold."

What inspires such an attitude? The Chester County Food Bank in Exton, created in 2009 by Robert McNeil, whose family invented Tylenol.

"It took him a year to twist arms" and raise $6 million, Simmons said. McNeil declined to be interviewed, as did Larry Welsch, the food bank's executive director.

Antihunger experts say the Chester County Food Bank wants Philabundance to withdraw from the county so supermarkets accustomed to giving food to Philabundance will switch and give to it instead. Pantries support this, since the food bank doesn't charge for food or membership.

However, Philabundance won't cede Chester County to the local food bank, said Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, of which the Chester County Food Bank is not a member. "We already have a food bank serving the area," he said.

Clark said Philabundance distributed one million pounds of food in Chester County last year. "That is a lot [to] lose if we stopped distributing there," he added.

Dinniman and others - aware of the large number of farms and other county resources - are willing to take their chances.

"Rather than being helpful, it's almost like Philabundance is sparring with us over this territory," he said. "They should focus on other areas of need instead of competing with us, and creating a system on top of our own."

Phoebe Kitson, program manager of the Chester County Food Bank, said in a written statement: "We believe that all donations made by local corporations and grocery stores in the county should stay in the county."

Charity experts suggest Philabundance may be enduring a significant loss of financial donations from Chester County benefactors more willing to help the local effort.

Clark said that Philabundance is "not focused on monetary donations from Chester County."

'A new thing'

Food makers are giving away less product to charity. And that's a problem.

Between 2006 and 2012, annual U.S. industry contributions to food banks declined from 858 million pounds to 815 million pounds, according to the Food Marketing Institute, an industry association.

Tighter profit margins during the recession led food manufacturers to seek cash by selling goods to secondary markets, such as dollar stores, rather than donating them to food banks, FMI says.

The food industry is also more efficient, and not mislabeling food as often. Such food is unfit for sale but perfectly fine for donation to food banks, said Domenic Vitiello, an expert on food-system planning at the University of Pennsylvania.

As hunger fighters vie for the same, diminished assets in tough times, conflicts flare, said Patrick Druhan, a director at a Montgomery County hunger-relief agency.

"Competition is a new thing in the nonprofit sector," said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center of La Salle University's School of Business. "The image of nonprofits as nice places where we don't step on each other's toes won't linger."

The fight between Philabundance and a Reading food bank is an example.

Peg Bianca, director of the Greater Berks Food Bank, has accused Clark of poaching thousands of pounds of meat from Sara Lee, earmarked for her food bank.

Clark insists that Bianca has mischaracterized his actions.

Bianca said: "Bill was not playing right. He violated the Feeding America contract, coming out of his territory and taking food from one of my donors. If we're all striving to do the same thing, why are we stealing from each other?"

In 2010, the Sara Lee plant in Pottsville, Schuylkill County, was supplying meat to Greater Berks, Bianca said. Feeding America, of which Berks is a member, says the county "belongs" to Greater Berks, Bianca said.

After a while, the donations lapsed, and Bianca said she was shocked to learn the food was going to Philabundance.

Clark said, "We didn't pull food out of Peg's backyard," adding that Sara Lee itself made the meat available to Philabundance. An internal Feeding America communication indicates the company wanted to offer its donations to other food banks because the tons it was sending out "exceed Greater Berks capacity."

But Bianca says Clark undermined her by telling Sara Lee she didn't have space to store meat. If she could handle the product before, she said, why couldn't she continue?

"At a meeting, I said to Bill, 'Stay out,' " Bianca recalled. "Bill said, 'What's it matter?'

"All I'm saying is this is not how you do business."

Clark said he never sabotaged Greater Berks by telling Sara Lee the food bank couldn't handle the meat. Bianca simply misunderstood, he added.

Sara Lee is now Hillshire Brands. A Hillshire spokesman said he couldn't find anyone familiar with the incident.

Feeding America declined to comment.

This isn't an isolated case, said Vitiello of Penn. "There are real territorial issues," he said. "Philabundance is incredibly aggressive in seeking out food sources."

He said he's heard complaints that Philabundance was "siphoning off" produce at the Port of Wilmington, an area under the aegis of the Food Bank of Delaware, part of Feeding America.

While not accusing Philabundance of poaching, a food bank official indicated there was a problem. "I think it was something that deserved looking at," said Patricia Bebe, president and CEO of the food bank. She added that her staff compiled "an inch-thick" file on the subject, but declined to elaborate.

Denying improper behavior, Clark said he's never taken food from the port without first checking with the Food Bank of Delaware.

'A love-hate thing'

For years, people in the business of feeding the poor have had a complicated relationship with Philabundance.

"We have a love-hate thing with them," said Fran Alloway, a board member of the Delaware County Interfaith Food Assistance Network, and a nutrition and food-safety educator for Penn State Extension, College of Agricultural Sciences at Pennsylvania State University.

"They do such wonderful things. But they are big - Big Brother compared to local folks. They overshadow the little folks."

Kendall Hanna, former executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg, said his working relationship with Philabundance was smooth - with "no poaching."

Yet, he said, Bill Clark "isn't reserved, and maybe that rubs people the wrong way. He tends to be aggressive."

Clark, who makes $141,300 annually - about $100,000 below the median compensation for the head of a charity of Philabundance's size, experts say - has a simple response: "We're the big guy, and we must be bad."

He went on, "In my lifetime, my approach has been called 'aggressive,' 'forceful,' and a few words not suitable to print."

People would like to paint the relationship between the hunger-relief community and Philabundance as a David-vs.-Goliath struggle, Clark said. "In a way, that's true," he added, "except hunger itself is Goliath."

And, Clark concluded, he and other hunger fighters - even the ones angry with him - "all play the role of David."

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