“Neighbor to Neighbor is here to say,” Director Charlotte England said. “We are still getting donations and people are bringing in food. No one has missed a meal or getting their food.”
The Neighbor to Neighbor assistance organization is working to reacquire The Emergency Food Assistance Program after an investigation led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cut ties with the non-profit.
“They are still a member of the foodbank and can still distribute food that they shop for off of our shopping list and receive,” said Arkansas Foodbank Chief Operating Officer Jayne Ann Kita.
“So, there is a way for them to continue to serve the community just not as a participant in the TEFAP program.”
According to the Arkansas Department of Health’s website, the purpose of TEFAP is to “help supplement the diets of low-income Americans, including the elderly, by providing them with emergency food and nutritional assistance at no cost.”
TEFAP, which is administered on the federal level through the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, provides food to local agencies who then distribute the products to local organizations.
Canned fruits and vegetables, fruit juice, soups, peanut butter, dried beans, rice, cereal, dried egg mix, pasta products, meat, poultry and fish are the various types of items organizations receive as a part of the program.
“I’m devastated over this entire situation,” said Neighbor to Neighbor Director Charlotte England. “Neighbor to Neighbor is so important to this community and when I say this community, I mean Jefferson County.”
Arkansas Foodbank USDA Coordinator Kati South visited Neighbor to Neighbor on Aug. 21 for an unscheduled visit and found several issues with the operation.
The initial findings included inaccurate monthly reporting causing wrong inventory counts resulting in excessive amounts of products in storage that wasn’t distributed. Improper storage of items on the floor, against the wall and not on pallets or shelves was also reported.
Additionally, DHS noted that client cards were not being used, and workers were failing to verify if clients completed the cards on file or even checked to see if they met income guidelines. The report also stated that workers did not require people who were receiving products to sign their cards upon receipt of food and were only serving senior citizens versus everyone that met the eligibility guidelines for the program.
“This is a terribly, unfortunate situation,” said Neighbor to Neighbor Chairman Lisa Rowland. “But, it’s one that can be corrected and it is being corrected. We’re not going to let it stop us from feeding the hungry in Jefferson County.”
According to the report, “Neighbor to Neighbor had so much product in their storage area that products were stacked to the ceiling,” adding that “they also did not have enough shelving or pallets to have the food at least four inches off the floor and one inch away from walls.”
“We require food to be stored in a specific way and off the floor and the wall,” Kita said.
A follow-up visit on Aug. 23 by Kita resulted in the removal of all of the TEFAP products and the termination of the non-profit’s participation in the USDA program.
Arkansas Foodbank staff was instructed by TEFAP program administrator Jim Ponzini to collect the items and return them to the Little Rock warehouse.
“We had all of this USDA food stacked, not stocked,” said Neighbor to Neighbor board member Juanita Currie. “We had just not got around to putting all of that up within that eight-day frame that all this happened in. But, had we had more time all of that (food) would have been gone because we average about 60 to 80 bags a day.”
England says between the Aug. 10 date they picked up items from the Arkansas Foodbank to the Aug. 23 visit, that it wasn’t a large window of time to distribute the food.
“There are people that are hurting for food,” England said. “I have always said of all of the services we do, if we ever had to cut services it would not be food, because I think that we are all entitled to food. So, that has been my main goal to make sure people are getting food. So, why in the world would I stockpile food?”
In a loss report by the Arkansas Department of Human Services, it was documented that two cases of dry pinto beans, 180 cases of two types of cheese, 59 cases of cranberry juice, 10 cases of dried fig pieces and 25 cases of raisins had to be destroyed.
The report states the cheese was discarded because it was left on a truck, which was waiting to be inspected by the Dept. of Health while the other items were infested with roaches from Neighbor to Neighbor.
Additional TEFAP items recovered from the non-profit were 13 cases of tuna fish, 35 cases of elbow pasta, 28 cases of cranberry sauce, 18 cases of carrots, 26 cases of peanut butter, 44 cases of dry pinto beans, 25 cases of applesauce, 24 cases of tomato soup, 25 cases of black-eyed peas and 4 cases of vegetarian soup.
The total loss of products destroyed was estimated at $9, 938.31, according to the filings. “We were not in compliance with that report,” England said. “We did have some roaches and we did have the food sitting on those cardboard things on the floor. We’ve gotten some pallets now. A business here in town brought us some pallets and told us whenever we need them that they would bring them to us.”
Kristina Young, who allegedly reported that Neighbor to Neighbor wasn’t serving clients under the age of 55 unless it was in case of an emergency, was terminated on Aug. 23 for reasons unrelated to her claim, England says.
“I had no evidence around that,” said Kita of Young’s allegation. “They have staff people who spoke on both sides of that issue and I did not see them turn anyone away while I was there, none of our staff did on our different visits. So, I can’t speak to that.”
Young also informed South that she was told by England to always report zeros on the end of the month report. The monthly report helps the Arkansas Foodbank determine how to adjust the amount of products to send to local organizations to cut down on storage from month to month.
The cheeses, dried fig pieces and vegetarian soup were all zeroed out, according to the loss report. England insists that she did not inform her workers to zero out food and that she checks with her staff routinely to get an accurate count of the items they store in their facility for documentation purposes.
Finding out about the inaccuracies in the monthly reports were a total shock to England who says she trusted her employees were doing the right thing.
“It breaks my heart for Neighbor to Neighbor to go through this,” England said. “It’s devastating to put your whole heart into something and have someone try to undermine and hurt you and when they couldn’t hurt me, to try and hurt Neighbor to Neighbor.” South spoke with another employee, who told her that she wasn’t completing USDA cards for each client because she was the only worker to handle signing people in to receive assistance. Smith did not find one USDA card filled out for the current year. “I’m not sure why she wasn’t filling out the cards,” England said. Last year around this time, a TEFAP review summary showed favorable remarks for the non-profit stating that it was “ a nice, clean and well ran facility,” adding that the “staff is friendly and helpful.”
It went on say that there were “no problems with TEFAP cards.” “They had a surprise inspection here last November, like every year they have one. Every year it has been okay…,” said England.
But, despite rumors and the loss of the USDA program, Neighbor to Neighbor officials say they are not closing its doors to the community. Founded in 1984, its purpose is to “provide service to indigents.”
Neighbor to Neighbor’s Guidestar.org impact statement says it “provided financial aid for utilities, transportation, medical expense, lodging, toys, school supplies, food and counsel to indigent or homeless persons.” The non-profit’s food pantry is supported by 68 area churches and they serve about 3, 000 meals a month through their soup kitchen.
They also distribute anywhere between 650 to 700 bags of food a month.
“Neighbor to Neighbor is here to say,” England said. “We are still getting donations and people are bringing in food. No one has missed a meal or getting their food.”
Neighbor to Neighbor was asked to provide a plan of corrective action to the Arkansas Foodbank for only serving senior citizens or burned victims, improper storage of product, client cards and eligibility information, inaccurate monthly reporting and pest control.
“There was a corrective action request sent and I have not had a response from that,” Kita said. “At this point, I can’t speculate as to what the future might be as far as their participation in the TEFAP program.”
Neighbor to Neighbor was asked to expand upon their initial actions, which England says they are currently working on. In addition to acquiring pallets for proper storage, she says pest control is making two visits a month and will make three if need be.
“We were told that we would probably get back on the USDA program,” England said. “But, no one gave us a time frame. So, we don’t know if that means two weeks or two years. But, Neighbor to Neighbor will be open during that time and it will be doing its job in getting out food.”