Infighting causes split at Washington County food bank

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For decades, Nellie Chester has been the public face of the Greater Washington County Food Bank.

After a fire destroyed the home she shared with her husband, Edward, and six children 43 years ago, Mrs. Chester began a food pantry in Ellsworth to recognize the community that helped her and her family get back on their feet.

“We felt that was our way to give back to the community for the help they had given us,” said Mrs. Chester, who has been the food bank’s primary spokeswoman over the years and has had various positions on the board, including president.

The 69-year-old was recently recognized with the Louis E. Waller Humanitarian Award for devoting her life to humanitarian needs, social reforms and feeding the hungry.

But a clash of personalities and political infighting among board members lately has caused a dramatic split between Mrs. Chester and her allies, and those of her longtime friend, Peg Wilson. It’s a fight that landed Mrs. Chester in the hospital last week for several days.

The women, both longtime Democratic committee members, have been close friends for more than 20 years, but a fallout earlier this year over food bank logos, operations and bylaws has caused an ugly rift that could end up costing hungry people food and supplies.

The feud began in February, shortly after Mrs. Chester‘‍s daughter Lisa Nuccetelli resigned her position as executive director, a job she’‍d held for five years.

Mrs. Chester said board members, including Ms. Wilson, micromanaged the food bank, each with their own ideas about the way things should be run.

It was a violation of the organization’s bylaws, Mrs. Chester said, which held that the board was to leave daily oversight of the food bank to the executive director, but that was rarely done.

Ms. Nuccetelli left amicably, but when it came time to name her successor, the bylaws were again disregarded, Mrs. Chester said.

A board committee tasked with identifying and vetting candidates overstepped its authority and hired Connie Burd from Greene County without input or a vote from the whole board, Mrs. Chester said.

“It just got worse and worse,” Mrs. Chester said.  “I was so disgusted with what was going on.”

After board members declined to participate in the Great American Food Drive this year and fired the creator of the annual fundraiser, Mrs. Chester said she’d had enough.

In what Mrs. Chester described as the “hardest decision in her life,” she resigned from the food bank board after more than 30 years.

But she didn’t want to walk away from her food pantry in Ellsworth, where local residents relied on Mrs. Chester each week to feed their families.  It’s one of 36 pantries countywide that serve 3,400 households per year.

Mrs. Chester incorporated the food pantry last year, along with several other food pantries. Incorporation as a nonprofit entity would allow the pantry to conduct small fundraisers and it would permit Mrs. Chester to solicit and distribute gift cards and other items to needy families from local businesses.

But the incorporation didn’t prevent several food bank board members from showing up at the Ellsworth food pantry last week and taking over the operation.  

Mrs. Chester became so upset, she passed out.

“There were 45 minutes of screaming and yelling,” she recalled.  “I turned to leave and everything just went black.”

Mrs. Chester was taken to the hospital on a stretcher and spent three days getting treatment for extremely high blood pressure.

Ms. Wilson said it was a board decision to take over the pantry operations due to the incorporation, but it was unclear why Mrs. Chester’s operation was the only one singled out.

“They knew when they did it that it would hurt me and it did,” Mrs. Chester said of her rivals at the food bank. “That was my baby. I’ve been there for 30 years. They tossed me aside like I was an old rag.”

Matters came to a head recently after the two sides traded jabs over a logo for the Great American Food Drive, a fundraiser that was created to generate donations for the food bank three years ago by Chris Plumtree.

At issue is whether the food bank owns the trademark rights to the fundraiser or whether, as Mr. Plumtree believes, he owns it.

In December 2010, Mr. Plumtree said he and a group of volunteers offered to organize the fundraiser as part of the food bank’s 30th anniversary celebration.  

For three years, Mr. Plumtree organized the event, which he said had corporate sponsorship and generated 671,000 pounds of donated food, which would have cost the food bank about $134,200 to purchase.

“It was unique because there has never been in Washington County a large food drive where 100 percent of the monetary donations and food collected stays in the hometown, and it was on a hyper-local level,” said Mr. Plumtree, who said there were no overhead or administrative costs associated with the fundraiser, thanks to the corporate sponsors. “Thirty-eight pantries were direct beneficiaries of the event.”

Last year, the food bank board approved the incorporation of the food drive as an independent entity. Mr. Plumtree incorporated it as a nonprofit organization.

“It was growing and it was its own thing,” he said. “[The board] felt it was time that the [food drive] became a solid entity of its own, to differentiate between the organizations. It was a win-win.”

When the food bank board declined this summer to pursue the food drive — a daylong festival with tractor pulls and local entertainment with donated food as the admission price — Mr. Plumtree, Mrs. Chester and Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey-Vaughan decided to stake out on their own, along with other local board members.

“We were not planning to have a Great American Food Drive this year,” said Ms. Burd, the new executive director.  “As far as we were concerned, it was done.”

But others wanted to see it continue and worried the food pantries wouldn’t be able to collect enough donations this year without the food drive.

“We are working to feed the same people,” said Ms. Irey-Vaughan.  “Any fundraiser or events held in Washington County go directly to the food pantries in Washington County.”

Once members of the food bank got wind of the plans they fired off letters to Ms. Irey-Vaughan, insisting she stop using the name Great American Food Drive and the logo, saying the food bank owned both.  

“We patented and own both the logo and the names The Great American Food Drive and Great American Food Drive, and we have no vested interest in conveying either our patented logo or the names at this time,” said a letter written by Ms. Wilson and other food bank representatives June 17 to Ms. Irey-Vaughan.

Ms. Wilson said she was most concerned when she began receiving phone calls from confused supporters, who were being solicited for donations.

“They are calling me and saying they are confused about where to send checks,” Ms. Wilson said.

Ms. Irey-Vaughan, Mrs. Chester and Mr. Plumtree said their logo is different from the previous one used by the food bank and they have incorporated under the name Great American Food Drive, so they own the name and aren’t infringing on the food bank’s rights.

“We have not infringed on their copyright — we have a different logo,” Mr. Plumtree said. “We received a legal opinion.”

The food drive was to be held at the end of July, but Ms. Irey-Vaughan, Mr. Plumtree and Mrs. Chester decided to cancel after the food bank and began sending letters to supporters urging them to pull support from it.

Caught in the middle of the fray are board members like retired state Senator J. Barry Stout, who has known Mrs. Chester and Ms. Wilson for decades.

“Obviously, if there’s discord it’s going to affect you meeting your goal,” said the former senator, 77, of Somerset. “I’ve gone down that road many times. I compromised. You have to be able to talk and respect each others’ positions.”

Mr. Stout is concerned that the number of families being served by the food bank each month is at an all-time high of 5,200, and he wonders if the credibility of the organization will suffer due to the infighting.

“We should resolve this,” he said. “We have other challenges ahead that need to be met.”

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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