Food for the Poor Battles Image and Poverty in Wake of Scandal
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The roads in Haiti are as poor as most of the people living there. It's as if someone yanked most of the pavement away, leaving behind gravel, potholes and craters. The holes are often so deep and sizable that the roads appear to have been splattered with bombs, making a car ride a bumpy nightmare.
In a scene that probably occurs frequently, a Haitian driving a van filled with people on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince recently tried to make a turn, but the car's right tire had sunk into a huge, rain-filled hole. A group of passersby stopped and, together with the van's passengers, started rocking the van and lifting the front bumper to get the tire out.
That image — of a stuck car with people helping people — sums up Haiti perfectly: It is a country that is stuck, both economically and socially, but people are trying to get it moving again.
One group offering aid is Food for the Poor, a nonprofit Christian relief and development agency. For the past 21 years, the charity has been helping the destitute in Haiti, which is considered the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based organization — the fourth-largest international relief charity in the United States — has offered food, education, housing, health care and emergency relief throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.
About three years ago, Food for the Poor was stalled temporarily when its president and founder, Ferdinand Mahfood, resigned after allegations of sexual and financial misconduct surfaced. It's estimated he diverted more than $400,000 to two female employees with whom he was romantically involved. The Mahfood family later repaid the money back to the charity.
Mahfood's brother Robin replaced him as chairman and president at the time. In September, P. Todd Kennedy, a lawyer and member of Food for the Poor's board of directors for almost two years, replaced Robin Mahfood as chairman of the board.
“I personally welcome the opportunity to devote all of my energies to guiding the explosive growth of Food for the Poor in fulfilling our mission to assist the poorest of the poor,” said Robin Mahfood, who continues in his positions as president and chief executive officer.
The FBI has been investigating Food for the Poor since the scandal broke because the charity receives federal funding. Bureau spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said the investigation is still ongoing.
The organization has been working “tremendously hard to regain the good name that we now have,” said Angel Aloma, Food for the Poor's executive vice president. He added that this work has led to some changes in the past several years, including “a tremendous amount of controls.”
Part of the fallout from the scandal were the resignations from the board of directors by three Catholic leaders: then Auxiliary Bishop of Miami Thomas Wenski; Bishop Norbert Dorsey of Orlando, Fla.; and Auxiliary Bishop Gordon Bennett of Baltimore, all of whom favored more checks and balances for the Mahfood family and greater input and control from Church leaders and the Archdiocese of Miami.
In response to whether they would go back to the board of directors now that some changes have taken place since the scandal, Bishop Bennett responded with the following statement: “I wish Food for the Poor well in all of its future endeavors. However, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate any further on the matter of board membership. Such a situation has not arisen.”
Carol Brinati, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Orlando, commented on behalf of Bishop Dorsey and Bishop Wenski, who is now the diocese's coadjutor bishop: “The work that Food for the Poor does is worthwhile,” she said. “But it's too soon to know if the organization has truly reformed in terms of management and leadership.”
Aloma pointed out that Food for the Poor has received high ratings from watchdog groups such as Ministrywatch.com, which gave the charity five stars — the highest rating — for its efficiency in terms of how it raises funds, spends its resources and uses its assets. Charitynavigator.com gave the group four out of four stars — its highest rating — in terms of its overall rating, which deals with organizational efficiency, capacity and overall financial health.
But Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group in Chicago, gave Food for the Poor a grade of C, which is satisfactory, for how the organization handles its money. He noted that other watchdog groups count donated goods as part of the money that's raised, while he doesn't include that in his analysis. He estimated that Food for the Poor spends between $23-$30 for every $100 it raises, an improvement from several years ago.
Although Food for the Poor does work in 16 countries, one of its biggest challenges is in Haiti, where the facts point out the urgent need for aid: About 80% of the people live in poverty. More than half of the population, including two-thirds of the children, suffers from malnutrition. About 95 out of every 1,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday.
“What keeps me going is what keeps all of us in the country going, and that is hope,” said Catherine Herman tin, Food for the Poor's Haitian project manager. “We do have hope that [the poverty situation] will change. We pray and hope that sooner or later something is going to happen, and it will change.”
Food for the Poor sponsors a feeding program at its large warehouse in Port-au-Prince, the capital, which feeds more than 15,000 people every weekday. Almost 50,000 people receive medical care and medication for extremely low prices in the pediatric and adult hospitals in its Arcachon Hospital complex. Makeshift huts have been replaced by concrete blockhouses — more than 100 — in a place in Port-au-Prince called Nativity Village.
In a quiet village about 17 miles north of the capital, it operates a handicapped children's home. It also helps orphans and the elderly with homes in Haiti and has established a new medical facility that offers an AIDS program to treat, support and care for — and prevent — the transmission of AIDS from a mother to her child.
“You won't find a people with greater faith than Haitians,” said Robin Mahfood. “They have the belief that God is there. They know him. People believe he's there. They've seen him. They understand him. They pray to the Father for food.”
Carlos Briceno is based in Seminole, Florida.
- October 19-25, 2003