Today I had this message in my email from a reader. It’s concerning our story Thursday about the stunning and abrupt closing of the Loaves and Fishes food ministry in Alamance County. More specifically, it addresses the message sent to the United Way by Loaves and Fishes director Brenda Allen about the news.
“Our mission has been fulfilled.” There are a heck of a lot more hungry people in Alamance County today than there were in 1999. The number of households below the poverty line has skyrocketed during that time. Unless the “mission” was to INCREASE HUNGER, how can anyone claim it has been fulfilled?
What a slap in the face to all the people who gave money, to all the volunteers and church youth groups who gave time and energy, to all the local churches who included them in their annual budgets.
Indeed, Allen’s message included the line, “Our mission has been fulfilled,” as if there are no more hungry people in our community so the services of Loaves and Fishes is no longer required. It’s a questionable turn of phrase at best. I thought the Times-News perhaps missed the potential headline on this story. Rather than “Loaves & Fishes to close on Sept. 30” we should’ve written “Hunger Defeated!”
But the closure — for reasons yet unknown and unexplained — of what was thought to be one of the county’s most successful non-profits is no joking matter. It’s deadly serious. If the organization’s filing with the N.C. Secretary of State is to be believed, it serves 7,000 people annually in Burlington, Mebane and Saxapahaw.
The first hint I had of any discontent about Loaves and Fishes began last November after we published a story about Allen being selected as grand marshal of the Burlington Christmas parade. In the story, Allen described herself as the founder of Loaves and Fishes.
The next day we got a couple of phone calls contesting that claim. We had a reporter call Allen and ask her a direct question about it. Allen assured us that she did, indeed, found the ministry.
When the designation appeared again in the Times-News, we once more got complaints about it. We decided to report on the history of Loaves and Fishes to clear the matter up. The story “Go Forth and Multiply” was published in February. As it turned out, Allen was a volunteer early on but was pretty far from founding the organization. The story was a very positive look at how the organization was formed and its growth. Allen was hardly mentioned in it.
At about the same time, we also reported on a reorganization that would temporarily halt food distribution at the downtown Burlington office. It was a pretty innocuous story that stemmed from telephone calls we received about the change. The story fully explained what was going on and that it would be resolved quickly.
This is when Allen called and asked if she could come to the Times-News office and have a discussion about our Loaves and Fishes coverage. She told me she was unhappy with our recent stories and asked when the Times-News had turned against Loaves and Fishes. I told her we had not. I said the history story was very positive and the second story simply explained something we had fielded complaints about. I pointed out that we do dozens of glowing Loaves and Fishes stories every year. The organization is a prominent fixture on our weekly Good News page, which displays photos and blurbs about the good works of nonprofit organizations in Alamance County.
She left frazzled and unhappy. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.
A few months later, the Alamance News published a story looking at the organization and its finances. It was a well-documented and researched story that illuminated a troubling situation. Solid work by the weekly newspaper. Frankly, I was ashamed that we hadn’t done it.
After the Alamance News story ran, I told city editor Brent Lancaster we needed to check it out as well. When we did, Allen told us that the Alamance News story was misleading and factually incorrect. She sat down for a long time with our reporter Molly McGowan and we pursued a ton of paperwork. While there was one misleading thing in how tax assets were accounted over there, the rest seemed pretty straight forward. We reported it in the same way, including the salaries Allen and her husband Larry Allen were being paid by Loaves and Fishes. It raised troubling questions for many in our community.
Which brings us to Wednesday night when we got word of the email Allen sent to the United Way as a member of the Community Council of nonprofits. It was in many ways stunning and certainly all too sudden. Makes us wonder why now and why so quickly?
So we are left with a ton of questions we’re trying to answer today and in the days ahead. At the moment, very few are providing much in the way of answers about what actually happened to an organization that listed more than $9 million in charitable donations last year. Thousands of people in Alamance County give to Loaves and Fishes in a variety of ways — most often, though, in the form of canned goods donated at charitable events in the community. The Twin Lakes holiday Lanes of Light show, for example, requests only a food donation to Loaves and Fishes for entry.
So it’s too early to draw conclusions about whatever problems may or may not exist at Loaves and Fishes. But I can say this: Silence doesn’t serve the community very well.
And the mission of feeding the hungry is just as important now as it ever was.