Why A New Food Bank On Kaua‘i?

This past Thursday, the Hawaii Foodbank held a blessing ceremony for its warehouse in the Puhi Industrial Park.

But wait, the Garden Island already has the Kaua’i Independent Food Bank near Nawilili Harbor, about a mile away! What’s up?

Therein is a story of intrigue, misspent funds, allegations of food going to unqualified people, and an acrimonious split between the statewide Hawaii Foodbank headed by president Richard Grimm and the now-independent one run by executive director Judith Lenthall.

It should interest individual, corporate and foundation donors, and even the U.S. Attorney’s Office because federal monies are involved.

Until 1994, Kaua’i Food Bank was part of the Hawaii Foodbank (HFB) under the umbrella Feeding America combine of 200-plus food banks providing for the needy. Then the Kaua’i group went independent but stayed under contract to the HFB until June of last year, when HFB said goodbye for good.

Why? According to documents provided to the state and federal governments by HFB which MidWeek reviewed the Kaua’i agency misused $779,000 in federal grant money and thus was forced to pay it back, refused to submit to an audit and inspection in July of 2009, wrongfully distributed food to an unqualified local paddling club, was found to not be monitoring chiller temperatures properly and was distributing out-of-date foodstuffs. The returned $779,000 was money that would have been spent for needy seniors on Kaua’i.

HFB also raised questions about the Kaua’i bank using grant money not to directly buy food from suppliers but through Kaua’i Fresh, a food program owned and operated by the Kaua’i Independent Food Bank.

In other words, a forprofit subsidiary of that food bank was using grant money to make a profit on food it sold to its owners.

Further, MidWeek examined records from a $100,000 Weinberg Grant that KIFB used for food purchases in 2003 and 2004. All but $6,000 of that money was funnelled through the KIFBoperated Kauai Fresh subsidiary, which collected a gross profit margin of 40 percent! That was using Weinberg money earmarked for the needy for Kauai Fresh to make money.

KIFB’s Lenthall admitted in a 2007 filing that Kaua’i Fresh was marking up the food costs before selling to her food bank but said, “that is what we believed was allowed by our grant.”

Kaua’i Independent Food Bank financial filings, audit record and memos written by Mainland food bank expert Jeanette Nadeau while she worked at KFB as an adviser show many troubling problems.

For one, KIFB had been coming in at a $20,000 annual deficit. When the Hawaii Foodbank moved KIFB from affiliate to just contract status, it paid off all of KIFB’s debts and sold all its inventory for $1. But even with that, the books show KIFB was charging agencies to which it distributed food $1.68 a pound. The money for that food came from local donors such as the Wilcox Foundation.

Some food banks in America do charge up to 18 cents per pound as a service fee. Hawaii Foodbank does not charge anything.

Additionally, KIFB has been paying its executive director $84,000 a year, despite the red ink problems.

Then on April 19 of this year, HFB president Grimm notified Feeding America and his board that “the staff (of Kaua’i Independent Food Bank) was ordered to falsify the Hunger Study information that is conducted every four years by Feeding America. Therefore, the numbers of truly hungry insecure residents of Kaua’i have been inflated by the Kaua’i Independent Food Bank.” That led HFB’s Grimm to write to his board of directors: “The upshot is that I don’t trust Kaua’i Food Bank, its executive director (Lenthall) or its board of directors to properly and ethically operate a (contract agency) for us.” The HFB board dissolved the relationship.

So the Hawaii Foodbank has opened what amounts to a competing operation on Kaua’i. I asked HFB’s Grimm why: “We saw that they (KIFB) were going in a different direction and not serving the needy of that island,” Grimm told MidWeek. “We as the statewide agency of Feeding America are mandated to feed the needy on all islands.”

So to which of the two food banks should Kaua’i residents and markets and foundations consider donating food and money?

“That’s entirely up to them,” Grimm said.