Crumbs in the Cupboard
Fort Worth’s oldest food pantry has hit the skids.
By JEFF PRINCE
A heavy truck lumbered back and forth across hundreds of soda cans piled in the Metroplex Food Bank parking lot, spewing a river of red pop across the asphalt and into a grassy field. Perfectly usable drinks that a beverage company had intended for needy families instead were being turned into crushed cans to be sold for the aluminum.
The person driving the truck and crushing the cans, volunteer warehouse manager Braulio Martinez, was worried. Newspaper photos of soda cans being destroyed could discourage donors, he said.
“They might not donate in the future if they see this,” he said.
In the past, cans like these were stored in the food pantry’s warehouse and distributed to southeast Fort Worth families or to other food distribution agencies. But the state health department hogtied Metroplex Food Bank after a fire scorched its warehouse this summer. The agency suspended the nonprofit’s food salvage license, meaning the pantry isn’t allowed to store or distribute food. But that hasn’t stopped director Sharon Hogan from continuing to accept donations. Turning down products might mean losing donors to one of the area’s other food banks in what is a competitive field for salvaged food.
The field might soon be narrowed by one, as questions pile up about this food pantry that is managed by a secretive and combative director who resists being monitored by food bank oversight agencies or the Better Business Bureau. Hogan’s organization has suffered fires and refrigeration problems and been beset by insect and rodent damages that have prompted health inspectors to order the destruction of hundreds of thousands of pounds of food in recent years.
Hogan has been working to get a restoration of the license, which would allow the pantry to accept large food lots, separate the good from the bad, and store and distribute the rest. But her problems may be growing rather than going away. The Texas Department of Health has referred Metroplex’s case to the state attorney general’s office for investigation and enforcement.
Hogan relies on a small staff of low-paid workers, plus volunteers and juveniles fulfilling community service requirements, to do much of the labor, while she draws an $80,000 annual salary plus benefits.
In contrast to similar nonprofit food distributors across the country, Metroplex Food Bank spends most of the money it raises on administration and fund raising and a smaller portion on food programs. Typically, a nonprofit’s directors will pitch a fit when too little money is spent on its mission, but for years members of Metroplex’s small board were handpicked by Hogan and apparently willing to grant full autonomy to a woman unable or unwilling even to provide a current Internal Revenue Service Form 990, a nonprofit’s version of a tax return and something that tax-exempt organizations are required to hand over upon request.
“You’re asking for a 990, and that makes me suspicious and makes me know that your motives are not good; I don’t need the bad publicity right now,” Hogan told Fort Worth Weekly in a Nov. 3 phone conversation after she had ducked interview requests for the previous three weeks.
For a while, few people seemed better at turning lemons into public relations lemonade than Sharon Hogan, the 50-year-old CEO who has led Metroplex Food Bank for most of its 23 years. Artfully turning mishaps into fundraising bonanzas, Hogan is proud of her ability to convince donors to offer more food, labor, and money.
Empty cardboard boxes stacked against the warehouse’s outside wall fueled a May 17, 2002, fire that caused $15,000 in damages. The fire’s cause was “suspicious but undetermined; it could have been anything from a homeless person to kids,” said Lt. Kent Worley of the Fort Worth Fire Department.
Fire officials warned Hogan about stacking the flammable boxes. The damaged roof went unrepaired, and health inspectors later noticed food pallets stacked underneath a hole in the ceiling, allowing the supplies to get wet during rains.
In October 2002, the food bank was forced to dump about 100,000 pounds of meat, eggs, produce, juice, and frozen foods after a routine inspection found a freezer that wasn’t freezing — and therefore wasn’t meeting state standards. A health inspector discovered thawed, moldy, and decomposing food in the freezer, whose temperature was 13 degrees above freezing. The inspection report said workers couldn’t provide current maintenance reports or temperature logs.
Metroplex Food Bank began throwing out food and, as is typical with this nonprofit group, relied on news media publicity about its dilemma and resulting charity from the general public to solve its problems. Hogan later told health inspectors that an air conditioning contractor repaired the freezer for free, another company repaired the building’s roof for free, and numerous donations were received, including $25,000 from a national corporation. Hogan, who had purchased a new Lexus sports car a few months earlier, told health inspectors she couldn’t afford to rent a larger dumpster to dispose of the tainted food.
But the coup de grace came after a July 11 fire this year that erupted in a banquet room and spread to the warehouse. Fire officials blamed an overloaded electrical outlet. A window-unit air conditioner had been placed atop a stack of trays in a banquet room without windows and left running overnight. The fire started about 5 a.m. on a Monday, and smoke and soot settled over the 35,000-square-foot warehouse’s contents. News stories quoted Braulio Martinez as saying that $100,000 to $150,000 of food would have to be destroyed. Some of the news reports also included information on how to donate money to the beleaguered pantry.
What news media and fire officials didn’t realize at the time was that the warehouse’s entire food contents had already been marked for destruction. A few days earlier, a health inspector had noted a long list of sanitation problems, most related to insects, rodents, and unsafe storage of food. Metroplex had agreed on July 8 to destroy the food — a potential public relations nightmare. A state health inspector was due on July 11 to continue the inspection and observe the food disposal. However, the fire broke out in the early morning hours before the inspector arrived.
Firefighters were told that a health inspector’s visit had been scheduled on the day of the fire. “We were aware that a inspector was coming out on Monday, but the information we had was that it was an initial inspection,” Worley said.
After the fire, donations continued to flow to the pantry. Some donors weren’t aware that the nonprofit agency didn’t have a license and was unable to store or distribute food. Almost four months later, the health department still hasn’t renewed Metroplex Food Bank’s license, but food — including the soda cans being destroyed and sold for aluminum — continues to arrive. Most food and the families who come seeking it are diverted to a church down the road.
Thursdays are when Metroplex Food Bank hands out free food, but the agency’s licensing problems have stymied handouts in recent months. Still, some families trek each week to 3200 Yuma Ave. near the corner of Riverside and Berry streets, hoping the pantry will be handing out milk, cheese, fruit, and other staples that help stretch their paychecks or food stamps a bit further.
“If they can’t help me, they send me somewhere where I can get help,” said Gloria Jackson, who works part-time and sometimes runs out of money before she runs out of week. She’s visited the food pantry off and on for three years but only when in dire need. Not everyone uses similar restraint, she said. “Some people come and get it every week just because it’s free,” she said. “It’s important to people who need it.”
She and other clients said they had received fresh, tasty food through the years and were typically treated well by staff and volunteers.
Tola Martinez relishes working at Metroplex Food Bank and helping hungry families, despite the pantry’s hectic pace. She manages the office, answers phones, fills out paperwork, and handles a steady stream of questions coming from clients, volunteers, and the men working in the warehouse to fulfill community service requirements. For this, she gets paid $10 an hour, or at least she did until recently. “Since the fire, nobody’s getting paid,” she said.
Hogan’s been kept busy wrangling with health inspectors and the attorney general’s office, which became involved after health violations were referred for enforcement — so busy she hasn’t done her typically crackerjack job of fund raising. The state is charged with ensuring the pantry meets health and safety standards as well as nonprofit agency requirements and that it is not abusing the public trust. One of the state’s options is to put the pantry in receivership.
Tola Martinez’ husband, Braulio, is the genial volunteer who manages the warehouse. Both have been at the pantry for several years and were willing to answer questions and show a reporter around the building. But Tola Martinez professed to have little knowledge about some things, including the whereabouts of her boss. Martinez’ stock answer was, “She’s in meetings,” yet she couldn’t say for sure where the meetings were held or with whom, only that they were related to Hogan’s attempts to get the nonprofit’s license reinstated.
Martinez couldn’t produce a current Form 990, an Internal Revenue Service tax statement required of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations. She said the 2004 Form 990 was “still at the CPA’s,” and the 2003 tax statement was in Hogan’s possession. Failing to provide a current 990 violates IRS rules for nonprofits.
“You might want to remind them that they are required to allow the public to see the 990, and it must be on display any time somebody asks,” said IRS spokesman Phil Beasley.
The most current tax statement Martinez could provide was from 2002, but it was signed and dated for submittal by Hogan on June 28, 2005. A question on the form asks the submitter to list the reason for a filing extension. “This small nonprofit has fallen on hard times and does not have the funds to pay the preparer,” was the typed response.
Hard times and money problems don’t appear to be new. Through the years, Hogan has made frequent pleas for money and food to keep the pantry’s doors open. The nonprofit’s web site, however, touts it as the “largest distributor of emergency food in North Texas,” handing out 17.5 million pounds a food a year (based on 1998 figures). The larger and better- respected Tarrant Area Food Bank in Fort Worth distributes 17 million pounds, while North Texas Food Bank in Dallas does twice that amount.
Tracing the ebb and flow of money and food at Hogan’s pantry can be tricky. But running a nonprofit without much outside oversight of finances and operations is not difficult. City health inspectors focus on restaurants, leaving state inspectors to oversee food banks and their warehouses.
The Better Business Bureau relies on cooperation from nonprofits. Those such as Metroplex Food Bank that refuse to submit information in an annual questionnaire aren’t endorsed, but they aren’t “outed” either. The Fort Worth Better Business Bureau, which promotes ethics in the marketplace through self-regulation and education, reported in 2003 that the food pantry didn’t meet the BBB’s standards for charitable organizations. Metroplex Food Bank was noted for spending too little on programs and allowing a paid employee (Hogan, the CEO) to also serve as chairman of the board of directors.
The food pantry has stopped answering the questionnaire since then, but when people inquire about it, the bureau says only that “we have no information to give,” said Marie Pate, the bureau’s director of operations.
The Better Business Bureau isn’t a law enforcement agency and can’t force nonprofits to respond to the questionnaire, although it is unusual for charities to withhold financial information, Pate said. “We have very few that don’t” provide financial data, she said, because “they want their future donors to understand what they do as far as finances and governance and the percentage of their income that goes toward the charity’s purpose and what amount is spent on fundraising.”
Another organization that oversees charities is GuideStar (www.guidestar.org), with a database of records on more than 1.5 million IRS-recognized nonprofit organizations. GuideStar provided the Weekly with an analysis of Metroplex Food Bank, although the pantry’s lackadaisical performance in filing tax forms limited the report to records prior to 2002. Compared to 412 similar organizations in its peer group, Metroplex Food Bank spent far fewer dollars on its mission. The median percentage of money spent on mission-related programs was 93 percent; Hogan’s group spent a dismal 39 percent that year, according to GuideStar. The two previous years showed similar results.
“Thirty-nine percent would concern me if I were a member of the board,” said GuideStar spokeswoman Suzanne Coffman.
Even refusing to provide a current 990 hasn’t appeared to create a problem for Hogan. The IRS’s Beasley, when told the food pantry claimed it couldn’t afford to have its tax statement prepared, said, “I don’t think that would be any excuse for an organization not to file a tax return.” Still, the IRS isn’t breaking down the pantry’s door. When it comes to scrutinizing charities and weeding out the bad ones, the primary enforcers are regular Joes, such as you and your neighbors.
“Eventually the IRS will come knocking and asking where the current tax returns are, but ... much of the oversight comes from the general public as far as checking to see whether organizations are doing what they are supposed to do,” Beasley said. “In tandem with that, the IRS does audit tax-exempt organizations, and if an organization is not complying with its stated purpose or not filing 990s timely, the agency can revoke the tax-exempt status.”
He was unable to say how often that occurs. “I don’t think there is any kind of measurement of how many organizations lost their tax-exempt status,” he said. Privacy laws prevent the IRS from revealing if an audit is being done.
Reporting a problematic charity organization requires a written complaint sent to the Tax Exempt and Government Entity Division of the IRS. “We really do need the input from citizens to determine the bad organizations,” he said.
Back at the food pantry, office manager Martinez was uncomfortable about not being able to produce a current 990 and concerned that Hogan wasn’t responding to the interview requests. She expressed surprise when told that Hogan draws an $80,000 annual salary. Martinez said she had never read the tax statements, despite being office manager. “I’m really just a clerk,” she said. “I told her [Hogan] I’m just a clerk but she said, ‘No, you’re an office manager.’”
Martinez was asked for the names and phone numbers of board members. Tarrant Area Food Bank and North Texas Food Bank both have upward of 30 directors on their boards. Martinez provided a 2003 annual report that listed Metroplex’s board — five names. Four members, including Hogan’s daughter, Jill Vaughan, no longer serve. Opal Lee, listed as secretary, is currently chairwoman. Martinez provided Lee’s phone number but could not provide contact information for the other four.
Board chairwoman Opal Lee is 79 and soft-spoken with a beatific smile and a way of carrying herself with dignity and humor. She welcomed a Weekly reporter into her tidy Fort Worth home. Despite its tribulations, she said, the pantry is doing benevolent work in a southeast Fort Worth community that relies on the help. Hundreds of hungry families seek out the pantry each week, and tons more food are distributed to other nonprofits to feed families.
She’s been a director for most of the pantry’s lifespan but said the board has never met regularly.
“Not often at all.”
But that’s about to change, she said. The other directors have stepped aside, Lee picked three new directors, and the new board met with Hogan several weeks ago. Lee vowed to do whatever it takes to appease health inspectors and state attorneys and get the pantry’s food salvage license reinstated. She defended Hogan, saying the longtime CEO has been a worthy leader and only stumbled recently. “At one time she was on top of everything and running a tight ship,” Lee said. “Maybe the first fire is when things began to deteriorate. But I believe that food bank is a vital part of the community and should stay open.”
When told about GuideStar’s reports, Lee said, “Oh my goodness.” She wouldn’t speculate on whether the board would be independent enough to challenge or replace Hogan, who has been the pantry’s lifeblood for so long. “I feel she will cooperate,” Lee said. “We need to let her come forward. She may say, ‘Hey, I can’t handle this, you need to get somebody else.’ But we’re not going to take the attitude that she needs to go.”
Lee was concerned that Hogan hadn’t returned the Weekly’s calls. She picked up her cell phone, dialed Hogan, and told her, “There’s a man here who wants to talk to you.” She handed over the phone, and Hogan began a defiant and sometimes tearful testimonial that lasted the better part of an hour. Before this reporter even asked a question, Hogan accused him of “probably working with the Tarrant Area Food Bank to tear me down.”
In actuality, the Weekly’s inquiries were prompted by one of Hogan’s neighbors, who called to say it seemed odd for a woman who ran a small food bank to drive a Lexus sports car and live in a fashionable southwest Arlington neighborhood. The pantry’s subsequent inability to provide a current Form 990 and Hogan’s refusal for weeks to respond to interview requests convinced the newspaper to look further.
Tarrant Area Food Bank and North Texas Food Bank are aligned with America’s Second Harvest, a hunger-relief organization with 200 affiliated agencies covering every county in the country. These organizations receive federal food commodities and tout their stringent auditing systems. Hogan called them “butt-heads” and said they have large, overpaid staffs.
“We are the first food bank in this area and we’re not going anywhere,” she said. “We were giving out more food than they were until they tried to ruin us.”
Executive directors at the other two food banks said they haven’t complained to other agencies — or to the Weekly — about Metroplex Food Bank and played no role in its woes. Neither would criticize Hogan outright but said they regretted that her problems taint them all in the public’s eyes.
“It causes confusion; I have friends that call me and say, ‘I heard about your fire,’” North Texas Food Bank Executive Director Jan Pruitt said. “That’s the concern for me.”
Tarrant Area Food Bank Executive Director Bo Soderbergh didn’t dispute that he had a larger staff with more paid employees than Hogan. “It takes staff, it takes money,” he said. “Handling food is a serious business.” He added that his food bank received the highest rating on Charity Navigator, another nonprofit tracker. (Metroplex Food Bank isn’t rated on this site).
“This food bank is well run and doesn’t have any of those issues, and we hope the public doesn’t confuse the two of us,” Soderbergh said.
GuideStar lists Tarrant Area Food Bank’s program ratio at 98 percent and North Texas Food Bank’s at 96 percent, far above Metroplex Food Bank’s 39 percent. Program ratios measure the percentage of an organization’s total expenses devoted to charitable activities versus administrative and fund-raising expenses. Hogan accused the other food banks of using accounting tricks to receive high percentages but offered no documentation to back her claim.
The Second Harvest Organization is “the biggest rip-off in the country,” she said. “They’re after one thing — money. We’re after one thing — feeding people.” As for her group’s dismal rating, she characterized GuideStar’s analysis as “bull.”
Hogan chastised the Weekly for going to speak to Lee, whom she described as “weak” and “too trusting,” despite the fact that Lee is chairwoman of the board. “Opal has a good heart and she doesn’t know better than to watch out for vultures like you,” Hogan said.
The rodent problem in the warehouse is the city’s fault, Hogan said, since city-owned vacant land next to the warehouse isn’t mowed regularly and provides a breeding ground.
Tears flowed as Hogan described how problems with health inspectors have disrupted her fund-raising efforts, preventing her from being paid and causing her to rely on her father and a boyfriend to pay her mortgage. She defended her salary and benefits of more than $100,000 a year, saying she wore two hats — directing the food pantry and handling fund raising. “I don’t get paid half of what I should be paid,” she said.
She blamed some of her problems at the pantry on the grief she endured after her husband’s death in 2001. Subsequent work absences meant turning over much of the pantry’s management to volunteers such as the Martinezes. “They might have made mistakes,” she said.
And besides, the pantry has been dealing with a run of bad luck “Bad things do happen to good people. It’s a chain reaction,” Hogan said. “Don’t you see?”
Trying to provide back records to the health department has taken all her attention lately, and she didn’t have time to respond to the Weekly’s requests for interviews. And besides, she said, “I took one look at you and knew you were up to no good.”
A week earlier, the reporter had knocked on the door of her Arlington home after two weeks of unreturned phone calls. A woman answered the door and said Hogan was at work. When told that nobody was at the food bank, she said, “Maybe she took a late lunch.”
It was Hogan herself at the door, she admitted on the phone. She had lied, she said, because the reporter was dressed sloppily and had a “bad light” surrounding him. (The reporter was wearing corduroy pants, boots, and a knit shirt but doesn’t recall whether he was also sheathed in an evil aura.)
Metroplex Food Bank will survive regardless of its detractors, Hogan said. “The truth needs no defense,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says.”
You can reach Jeff Prince at email@example.com.
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