food brings hope employees
At the Oil and Vinegar Day of Giving are, from left, Sofia Rivas, assistant director of VCan; Judi Winch, executive director of Food Brings Hope; Mamie Oatis, community operations director; and Forough Hosseini, founder and chair of Food Brings Hope. Oil and Vinegar selected Food Brings Hope as its charity of choice for the Day of Giving in 2022

DEC. 7 Update: After scuffle at Town Council meeting, charity backs out of Pierson

What started as a discussion of leasing space to a nonprofit organization for $1 a year spiraled into heated debate and accusations of backroom dealing at a Pierson Town Council meeting Nov. 22.

With a unanimous vote, the Town Council rejected a draft lease agreement that would have allowed the nonprofit Food Brings Hope to set up in the former Pierson Elementary School.

The town purchased the dilapidated campus in 2019 with the intent of moving town operations as well as other services there, including the public library and the Volusia Sheriff’s Office. Three years later, work is still underway to bring the buildings up to snuff.

Food Brings Hope already has a presence in Pierson, at a church, and provides $250,000 worth of aid annually to Pierson-area residents. The organization’s hope was to establish a more permanent presence in the town by occupying four rooms and the cafeteria in the 16-room former school, and to pay the town $1 a year as a rental fee.

The price isn’t without precedent. The lease proposed by Food Brings Hope is nearly identical to one approved by the town in 2017 that allowed Volusia County library services to occupy a town property.

Food Brings Hope would use its space for twice-weekly classes and food services. Food Brings Hope founder and Chair Forough Hosseini said the town could use the space when the nonprofit was not using it.

The town would have been on the hook for the cost of utilities and maintenance of the building, and the Town Council wasn’t having it.

Vice Mayor Robert F. Greenlund said the Town of Pierson is appreciative of the assistance of Food Brings Hope, but the lease price was a snag.

“Everybody on this council would not do anything to harm anybody in our community, especially,” Greenlund said. “We would do anything we could to help them, but I think you’re just asking too much from this small community because we don’t have the tax base.”

Representatives from Food Brings Hope argued that they already do a lot for the  community — including the quarter-million in aid per year, according to attorney Nika Hosseini.

“I apologize for not coming to you and sharing all of what FBH does for your residents,” Forough Hosseini said. “I perhaps incorrectly assumed in a town of 1,500 you all would know what is going on. I would imagine you would know who provides the much-needed services and resources; who takes care of the hungry and the poor.”

Nika Hosseini expressed frustration at the idea that the town would charge the nonprofit to provide services to its residents that the town itself is not providing.

“The thought that somehow a nonprofit owes the town something … despite providing a quarter of a million dollars in services is pretty beyond the pale,” Nika Hosseini said. “If the town would like Food Brings Hope to route every call we get from your residents to the town instead, we’re happy to do that.”

Like many comments made during the heated Town Council meeting, her comment was met with applause.

Another round of applause came when newly sworn-in Town Council Member Linnie Richardson moved to reject the draft lease agreement. This was seconded by her fellow newly sworn-in Town Council Member Brandy Peterson.

Richardson echoed what a number of town residents and other council members said: The town could not afford to lease rooms in the currently empty main building without receiving something in return.

The town purchased the complex that was once Pierson Elementary School for $73,770 in 2019. Since then, the town has proposed a number of uses for the center, from leasing some of the school buildings to nonprofit organizations to renting out rooms to recoup the money the town has spent to buy the buildings and repair them.

As of June 2022, the town had spent $155,674 fixing up the former school, and there is still work to do. The town has yet to set a date for when it can move its own operations into the center.

Pierson resident Rick Davis was the first to make the point about cost during the public-comment part of the Town Council meeting.

“The people of this town are not opposing your efforts,” he said to the representatives from Food Brings Hope. “We look at this lease agreement, and it’s strictly an economic problem for us. This town can’t afford what you’re asking us to do.”

Other residents went so far as to say that Food Brings Hope’s efforts — which had incorrectly been described on social media as a “homeless shelter” — would hurt the town.

Food Brings Hope focuses on providing food and nutrition education to children and their family members who are experiencing poverty and/or homelessness. The organization operates across Volusia and Flagler counties.

Pierson resident Amanda Moreno said she “ran from Daytona Beach because of what you guys have done” and feared that giving Food Brings Hope a presence in the Town Center would spell trouble for Pierson.

“You don’t get the center of our town,” she said. “We lose control if they get the center of our town.”

As it stands, Food Brings Hope’s Pierson Pantry Program operates out of Mission San Jose of St. Peter Catholic Church at 165 Emporia Road, which is just outside of city limits. Richardson noted that many served by the Pierson Pantry Program might not even be Pierson residents.

Following more than an hour of heated discussion, the Town Council voted unanimously to reject the draft lease agreement. Council Member Sergia Cardenas was absent from the meeting.

Forough Hosseini asked the council if they would consider an altered lease, one that took into account some of the council’s economic concerns.

“Anybody has a right to request anything,” Richardson replied, saying she would need to see facts and figures before she agreed to anything.

Asked whether Food Brings Hope plans to bring a new lease to the town, attorney Nika Hosseini said it’s still up in the air.

“The FBH team is getting together next week to strategize and decide what steps to take next,” she said.

Before the meeting ended, Mayor Samuel G.S. Bennett had to defend himself against accusations that he had been dealing privately in the background with Food Brings Hope.

Bennett told the rest of the Town Council and the packed audience Nov. 22 that for about two years, he has been in occasional communication with Food Brings Hope Chair Forough Hosseini about expanding the organization’s offerings in the former school.

He defended himself against accusations that he had not disclosed his meetings with the organization and that he had helped write the $1-a-year draft lease.

The accusations had spilled over into social media and town gossip, as emails obtained via a public-records request indicated Bennett may have communicated with Food Brings Hope on his private email account, not his Town of Pierson account. Nika Hosseini explained that her organization had sent emails to both accounts in an effort to get information to the mayor.

Food Brings Hope’s frustration with the town, attorney Nika Hosseini explained, began when the draft lease was put on the Pierson Town Council agenda in October without anyone from the nonprofit organization being notified. At that meeting, discussion of the lease was tabled, and Town Attorney Christian Waugh said the lease could use some work.

“I’ve never seen the level of disorganization seen here,” Nika Hosseini said.

The draft lease agreement on the table Nov. 22 takes much of its wording from a similar agreement signed by the town and Volusia County to offer services in the Town Center for the same cost of $1 per year, Hosseini explained.

While the county hasn’t moved any operations there yet, the public library is expected to move to the Town Center once it is able.

Close on the heels of a feisty election season that featured two Pierson Town Council races, discussions about growth and concerns about the influence of campaign contributions from East Volusia development interests, it’s possible the lease discussion was colored by the relationship between Food Brings Hope and Mori Hosseini’s company, ICI Homes.

Hosseini-owned companies are mega-donors in local election races. Food Brings Hope founder Forough Hosseni is Mori Hosseini’s wife, and Nika Hosseini, the lawyer representing the nonprofit, is his daughter.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here