WOFB ends deal with Mercy Unlimited

Officials from the West Ohio Food Bank in Lima arrived at Mercy Unlimited Inc. in downtown Wapakoneta Thursday and alerted them they were terminating their contract to provide food to the pantry at a discounted price.

A letter, dated Thursday and was addressed to Tammy Brown with the Mercy Unlimited food pantry, stated “My recent inspection of your facility, on behalf of West Ohio Food Bank, did not find everything in compliance with our state and federal regulations.”

Problems cited in the letter were the food banks “non-compliance of the current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Ohio Food Purchase (OFP) and Agriculture Clearance Program (ACP) contract by having an incorrect form for clients to sign for food. An eligibility form to detemine if a client can take food home is the only form clients are expected to complete to receive state and federal food.”

The letter said the decision was made after consultation with a regional agent from the USDA, which oversees regulations for the West Ohio Food Bank.

The letter was signed by West Ohio Food Bank CEO Gary Bright and charity relations spokeswoman Emily Stimmel.

Bright said West Ohio Food Bank was hesitant at making the decision but that their hands were tied.

“We serve 176 different agencies in 11 counties,” Bright said. “Everyone that becomes a member is notified up front of the requirements. The only thing they are allowed to ask according to state and federal guidelines is for a picture ID to prove residence and an eligibility to take food home form in which the client is stating they are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

“We cannot risk the ability to receive food for all of our agencies,” he said. “The government wants to make sure people get the food based entirely on need. We are under tight scrutiny from the government.”

Two representatives of the West Ohio Food Bank, one of which was Stimmel, surprised members of the Mercy Unlimited Board of Directors when they said they were planning to take an inventory of items purchased by Mercy Unlimited, and they would be removing all of those items from the premises. The two workers immediately began to load food from the pantry into the bed of a pickup truck driven by one of the West Ohio Food Bank representatives.

Brown, a volunteer with Mercy Unlimited who helps oversee the food bank, said the decision came as a result of a question asked on the form when clients come to the bank seeking food.

West Ohio Food Bank representatives said the second to last question on the form, which states “Have you received any food/financial (help) from God’s Storehouse or any other organization?”

Brown indicated the question violated requirements of the USDA.

Brown said the forms are used to get a better understanding of the situation of clients and it was impossible for some questions to be omitted in order to provide the right services to clients without some information.

“We are here to feed the people,” Brown said, “and help the sick and cloth the needy.”

Mercy Unlimited Board Treasurer Larry James said problems began surfacing in the early summer when an inspection called for the agency to come in to compliance with state and federal regulations.

“They come in and did an inspection and said we weren’t doing some things to the letter,,” James said. “We do our food distributions separate. We work very closely with God’s Storehouse. We simply could not do everything they required us to do and still be able to serve our customers in the way we want to. We had been discussing the possibility of breaking off with the West Ohio Food Bank but we wanted to get ourselves in a better position financially before doing so to continue serving our customers.”

Brown said requirements by the state and federal government limited the questions Mercy Unlimited  could ask, something that simply could not be done without jeopardizing their policy to help the needy in a more all-encompassing manner.

“We want to transform their lives,” Brown said. “We don’t want to just give to them. We want to empower them and teach them.”

The decision will come at a cost to Mercy Unlimited, as they were able to purchase food from the West Ohio Food Bank eat a cost of 18 cents per  pound or less through its programs funded by USDA, OFP and ACP.

Mercy Unlimited does also receive several local donations to the food bank but relied on the West Ohio Food Bank to further stock its shelves.

James said they purchased approximately $1,800 a month from the West Ohio Food Bank, which results in approximately 10,000 pounds of food.

James said he did not have an exact count on what was being removed, but said it did not amount to an entire month’s worth of purchases.

James said that Mercy Unlimited will now be faced with finding another potential affordable food source for the agency to supplement its supply.

“We will face considerably higher cost to purchase these items off of store shelves,” James said.

He said Mercy Unlimited would be refunded money used to purchase the food that was removed.