By Conrad Dudderar
Outdoor food pantries prompted spirited public debate recently before the Yukon City Council adopted the Yukon Unified Development Code and Zoning Map.
Section 306 titled “Accessory Structures and Uses” took up much of the discussion during the June 6th Yukon City Council meeting.
That section of the new city code allows food pantry boxes in non-residential zoning districts or “as an accessory to an allowed Place of Assembly use” in any district.
Outdoor food pantry boxes are limited to 60-inches high and 36-inches wide and deep – and must be constructed to protect its contents from the elements, according to the code language.
These enclosures must be sized and arranged such that no person or child is able to enter.
Yukon’s First United Methodist Church has a care cupboard that provides food, water, blankets, and toiletry items to be “people in need”, Associate Pastor Kristi Swink said at Tuesday night’s city council meeting.
It’s an important Yukon FUMC ministry that touches many lives, she explained.
The unmanned, outdoor cupboard allows people to come for food when they are hungry, no matter the time of day or night.
“We have several people who daily visit the care cupboard,” Swink shared. “Some people are homeless. Some live in the extended-stay motels on Main Street and can barely afford their rent, much less have money for food.
“Some live in their cars. And a few may have a home, but are experiencing hard times and need extra, temporary support.”
Several months ago, the church installed a video camera to monitor what happens at its food cupboard.
“This brought to light the large number of people who depend on it for their basic needs. Almost all of them are respectful and thankful. … They take a few things out. They come quietly and they leave quietly.”
The care cupboard ministry – a project of the Care In Action Sunday School class – is “living out our call as a church and as followers of Christ,” Swink added.
“People who are hungry or homeless are not being drawn to this area because of our food cupboard. If we were to remove it, people in need would still be wandering the streets. It was happening long before we put the cupboard up.”
Joe Horn, a longtime Yukon banker and property owner, had asked Yukon’s city council to bring food panties inside and limit them to daytime business hours through the Unified Development Code.
Horn referred to nuisances and dangers an outdoor food pantry box causes by attracting more homeless and transients downtown.
He shared concerns about out-of-date or spoiled food that attract rats and skunks, and pharmaceuticals being left inside the box.
“If you don’t live next to it, I don’t imagine you would care,” Horn said. “But I care. I care about who gets into the box and what they get into. Even canned food will spoil at certain temperatures. This is just a box.”
Horn lives and works near the Yukon FUMC’s outdoor food pantry.
“It has gotten misconstrued that I don’t want to feed the homeless; I don’t want to feed poor people,” Horn said. “We’re not benefitting me by putting a cupboard in or taking it down.
“I’m concerned about my neighborhood. I’m concerned about the entire city of Yukon. It is a security issue insofar as the bank (YNB) is concerned.”
Horn contends having the outdoor food box contributes to the homelessness problem by drawing people downtown at “all hours of the night.”
Yukon FUMC members check on their care cupboard several times daily and immediately remove any inappropriate item (like medicine) that is placed inside, Swink responded.
Yukon’s Jeri Poplin said care cupboards like the one on the FUMC-Yukon property is one way to close the gaps for families who need help.
“We provide a small comfort to many who find themselves without the resources to provide food for hungry bellies,” she said. “The cupboard is a quick way to ensure someone who is loved doesn’t go to bed hungry.”
Poplin referred to an increase in food insecurity across the U.S., with Oklahoma being among the poorest states.
“As compared to the national average of 10.2%, Oklahomans experience food insecurity at a rate of 14.5% of all households,” she said. “The Regional Food Bank ranks Oklahoma as the fifth hungriest state in the entire country.
“Some estimate that nearly a third of our current workforce is one bad accident, one large medical bill or one missed paycheck away from financial ruin.”
People are hungry outside the church’s regular business hours and many of the “working poor” cannot take off from their jobs to come to the caring cupboard during the day, Poplin pointed out. Others may not have access to transportation.
The soul of a community can be determined by the way they treat their most vulnerable and disenfranchised citizens, Poplin added.
“I’m proud to say I’m from Yukon because this community loves, supports and embraces one another during times of prosperity as well as times of distress,” she said. “Please don’t allow the self-serving desires of a few to turn our backs on the vulnerable among us.”
Feeding the hungry is a protected religious activity under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
“Numerous cases have upheld churches’ rights to feed the hungry as Jesus calls them to,” FUMC-Yukon Pastor Kirt Moelling said. “I’ve got a Department of Justice statement of interest they filed in federal district court in May of this year outlining all the cases that allow churches and other Christian ministries to feed the hungry.
“The Department of Justice has made it clear they enforce that civil right and are willing to do so. We’re partial to our right as well to serve and be in ministry.”
Moelling, who was a lawyer before being called to ministry, has been the church’s pastor for four years.
He cited the serious homeless issue in downtown Yukon.
“We feel like there’s not that resource to these folks down here,” Moelling said, after Manna Pantry moved in January 2022.
“First United Methodist Church is a Christian ministry that’s been here for 130 years on this corner (4th and Elm). … Some people may come down to get some food because it’s available, but as far as ‘drawing’ people to the community or to this area, those folks were there before.”
The Yukon pastor responded to Horn’s request that his church restrict feeding to daytime hours and bring it inside.
“That would unduly burden how United Methodists in particular respond to Jesus’ call to feed and serve,” Moelling said.
Some hungry people who need help are often ashamed, embarrassed or don’t want to be judged, he noted.
“It’s not illegal to be poor, to be hungry, to be homeless,” Pastor Moelling emphasized. “These people have rights as well.
“Our church also calls us to ‘go into the world’, not just to serve in the door. We’ve made sandwiches and taken food to homeless camps in other areas around here, trying to go out.
“We’re just going out our door on our property offering food to people who aren’t going to come in.”
‘2 A.M. NEED FOR FOOD’
Yukon’s Patrick McClung owns a Main Street business close to FUMC-Yukon.
McClung, who previously was associate pastor at Chisholm Trail Presbyterian Church, said he doesn’t believe anybody in this town is against helping someone in a time of need.
“One of the reasons I loved taking the youth to the Manna Pantry is because they have the opportunity to work directly with people in need and help those people face-to-face,” McClung said.
“This is something I think all churches should really strive for. I’d love to see these volunteers and these opportunities to keep the church open after those times to serve those people.”
McClung referred to the issue among Yukon Main Street merchants and property owners about the “2 a.m. need for food.”
“It might happen sometimes, but what we have seen in my business is a significant increase in transient population” and those with “mental health issues,” McClung said.
He said they sometimes frighten his employees by walking into his business early in the morning, checking the doors and running by in front not wearing clothes.
“Those persons obviously need all the help that we can provide,” McClung added. “But unfortunately, providing sandwiches or any type of food at 2 a.m. is not necessarily the help they would need.”
The Yukon Main Street businessman encouraged church members to open their doors to these people who need help instead of leaving food out and hoping they come.
Horn agreed, noting the hungry also can visit the Manna Pantry for food.
“I don’t have a problem with feeding the poor,” Horn told church leaders. “If you truly want to do your mission, feed the poor. Unlock your door. Bring them inside. Feed them. Absolutely you can do that.
“Why do we have to regulate this? Why wouldn’t you just want to be good to your neighborhood? Minister to your neighborhood, not just the people who wander up in the middle of the night.”
Manna Pantry’s emergency food cupboard had been at Sixth and Maple for several decades before moving last year to the Together We Center on Cemetery Road south of Interstate 40.
“It is very hard for people who are homeless, who don’t have a car, to travel to the Manna Pantry and back now,” Swink said.
Ward 4 City Council Member Aric Gilliland had suggested amending the Unified Development Code’s Section 306 to require that outdoor food pantry boxes be closed between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. But that motion died.
“Our obligation is not only to the individuals in need, but our community – the social holiness,” Gilliland said.
“Outside of community, ministry doesn’t really happen. I would encourage the church to continue to do ministry, continue to follow their passion, but maybe explore ways that meshes a little more with the immediate neighbors and community.”
Yukon Mayor Shelli Selby pointed out there are “always two sides” and “not everybody” will be happy.
“One small outdoor pantry is not the reason for the homeless,” Selby said. “We need to take a deeper look into what can be done in this area rather than telling churches how to do ministry.
“I do hope the church and Mr. Horn can work together to come up with a solution to do what is best for Yukon. For now, I feel the (City of Yukon) administration, Planning Commission and Council did what was best for the city.”
There are two non-profits with indoor pantries that provide food to the hungry at N Sixth St. and Main – Yukon Sharing Ministry and Jacob’s Cupboard.