Monday, June 14, 2010

Juda Engelmayer Working for Angels

Our old friend Juda Engelmayer has been known on the Lower East Side as a PR person and, on occasion, a political advisor. But a few years ago his life changed. One of his clients recommended him, yarmulke, NY accent and all, to become a spokesman for Angel Food, a Christian ministry that functions as a large food cooperative operating in 44 states and more than 6000 communities. He spoke to us over the phone from Monroe, Georgia, near Atlanta.

Juda Engelmayer: Angel Food was started in 1994, in the little mill town of Monroe, GA, by pastors Joe and Linda Wingo. It’s a proud, blue collar, southern town, where the mills were closing down, people were losing their jobs, and Pastor Joe saw that people were scurrying around for food, neglecting their families, their faith, and their community. Their priority was, let me put food in my belly to sustain me, so I can find a job.

At first he thought that giving away free food would help. He went around collecting coupons and buying dented cans and leftovers, and he tried to give food away locally, in Monroe. Nobody would take it. Then he came up with a beautiful insight: there are two types of pride in the world, good pride and bad pride. The good pride is, you’re in trouble, so you wake up early in the morning, you take a shower and get going. The bad pride is, you need help and someone is extending a hand, but you don’t want to take it, because you’re too proud.

So Pastor Joe decided to add a small fee on the food, just to cover his costs. In the first month, he had 34 families come to him for food. He went to every church in the community and said, bring me more people who need food, I’ll feed them, and for every person you bring me, I’ll give you a dollar. Angel Food was built on that. We’ve sold more than 22 million boxes of food, and given away more than 30 million dollars in charity throughout the country over the past 16 years.

And it’s no longer dented cans, it’s first-rate, supermarket quality products that you get from national vendors, like ConAgra, General Mills, Kraft, Betty Crocker, Perdue, Tyson.

We get good prices paying the vendors up front, so we get the most bare bone rates they can give. Most supermarkets operate on 30- to 90-day pay cycles. You bring them the food today, you send an invoice, and in one to three months you’ll get paid. With us, they bring us the food, they get paid. We buy close to 14 million dollars worth of food every month, and we pay our vendors pretty much up front.

When I started working for Angel Food, New York had about 18 host sites, local churches or not-for-profits that run our food cooperatives on their premises. Now, between New York and New Jersey, we’re up to 62 host sites. I’ve been trying to add synagogues to the list, but it’s been tough to get a synagogue to affiliate with a Christian ministry. I’m working on a fully kosher menu right now, actually...

Most of the food is produce and proteins – meat items, and I believe we can pull off a kosher meat menu. Before I get a synagogue to join, I’ll probably get a Jewish community center to work with us. The angle I’m thinking of is that we are like the kolel store, except you don’t have to drive out to Brooklyn.

Food is very political nowadays. How do you manage the organic versus major corporate?

In the last six months we’ve been buying produce more locally. We used to have everything shipped to our warehouse in Georgia or Texas, and then ship it out across the country. Now our produce is being packed in three different locations around the country, more locally. So people can take pride that they are helping the growers in their own region, and we leave a smaller carbon print.

We’re not looking to compete with Whole Foods, we can’t. We’re getting good stuff, but it’s not going to be necessarily organic. Unless, of course, the manufacturer has an overrun of a certain product and we can negotiate for a good price on it.

You know you’re starting to sound like a capitalist.

Working for a food ministry has taught me that there’s a great need out there, that can be served not necessarily through people getting it for free, but through people doing it themselves with a little help. I sound like a capitalist because you still have to work in the real world and negotiate with vendors, who may or may not share your vision or your goals or your mission. You still need to get the food from them.

Has it changed you spiritually as well?

It’s been a unique experience for me. I’m the only Jewish person working in a Christian ministry. Traveling around the country as I’ve been doing, I’m seeing the impact it’s had on local communities. People are coming together for a common cause, volunteers helping out at their local churches and community groups, packing the boxes for people,

putting them together, taking them to their cars.

I saw a woman walk over to my boss, she hugs him, breaks down and cries, I don’t have any money, she says, and I’ve been looking for ways to help people out. Now I come down all the time, I help people with their groceries, I see them smile, I’m giving something back. And I like to believe God appreciates the work I’m doing.

It’s the same for me, Engelmayer says. It’s the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I get to do everything I love doing, for a cause I truly believe in. I was in Bakersfield, California, last year, it was our biggest distribution in the country, 2800 units out of one church. They have this giant parking lot in front of this non-denominational Church, and there were folks of all walks of life, every race, every denomination, even some Jews. They had a gospel band, a tent to shelter seniors from the sun, some people were preaching, one guy was putting on a show, they had a high school football team with shopping carts running the groceries for people waiting on line. It was a carnival.

As an observant Jew, do you run into sharp corners?

He laughs. I’m treated better here than when I worked for Jews... They actually enjoy my presence; I engage in dialogue with my boss and his wife, who are both pastors, all the time, but they made the point that they’re not trying to save my soul, they would never want to make me feel uncomfortable. My boss’s wife and I have had a few conversations over the differences between our faiths, but we keep it very respectful.

They have kosher food brought in from Atlanta for me. They’re so nervous they’ll get it wrong, they overdo it. I thank them for the meat, but I tell them you don’t have to get me lettuce that was checked, just get me a head of lettuce, I’ll check it myself. And when we eat together, they like to take turns saying a prayer before the meal, and when it’s my turn, they love hearing me say the blessings in Hebrew…

Yori Yanover

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