Local nonprofit Food and Shelter is hoping to tackle food insecurity and head off housing issues with a new food and resource center in Norman.
Food and Shelter Executive Director April Heiple said the facility will be the first of its kind for Norman, and will provide a grocery store-like environment with significantly expanded food options compared to the average food pantry. The facility will have a dedicated space where individuals can connect with housing, safety and other resources, she said.
“Not only do we believe this new facility will reduce hunger for thousands of people, we also believe it will help reduce homelessness,” Heiple said. “Because if people are not choosing between paying rent and buying food, they can just pay rent.”
The nonprofit intends to build the planned 8,000-square-foot facility just south of its current Reed Avenue campus on property originally intended to hold low barrier housing.
Aside from offering basic groceries and produce, the facility will have refrigeration and freezer units that will allow Food and Shelter to keep a wider range of nutritious foods than are available at the average food pantry, Heiple said. The facility will also dramatically increase Food and Shelter’s storage space, which Heiple said has been a limiting factor for its current operation.
“It does all this in a more human-centered and empowering model,” Heiple said. “It also connects guests to other resources, and that’s what makes it very special.”
Heiple said the facility will connect community members with a number of resources; it’ll be a space for them to find help signing up for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ Live program, get support with the Social Security Services Administration and veterans services, and use computer kiosks for job, housing and other community resources.
Additionally, the facility will feature a full parking lot, a sidewalk that leads directly to the entrance and park lighting to help illuminate the street and surrounding area.
Center construction is projected to cost approximately $2 million, but Heiple said the McKown family has donated a “significant sum” to the project, and one of their associated companies, Landmark Fine Homes, is building the facility at cost price.
“We’re excited to contribute to a project that will make such a positive difference in the community,” Ronda McKown said. “And I think it’s great that just by recognizing there’s this problem in the community and addressing what can be done, everything is just coming together.”
With the McKown donation and other pledges, Heiple said the facility is already about 85% funded; Food and Shelter is now working to raise the remaining $150,000 with community support.
Heiple said the project is still in the planning and zoning process. Food and Shelter intends to go to the city planning commission with the proposal later this month and secure a permit from the Norman City Council soon after.
If things go well with council, Heiple said Food and Shelter hopes to break ground by the end of the year and be operational by fall of 2022.
A project deferred
Heiple started conceptualizing a food and resource center to address food and housing insecurity in Norman and surrounding areas in fall 2019.
While Food and Shelter has previously said its facility is ill-equipped to serve as a dedicated food pantry, Heiple said she began to consider alternatives in 2017, when the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma approached her.
Food bank representatives said Norman and Cleveland County were underperforming in serving hungry people, Heiple said, and asked if Food and Shelter would consider opening a food pantry.
“We didn’t build this facility to be a food pantry, but anytime someone tells me there’s a hungry person out there, I’m going to do what I can do to make sure they have access to food,” Heiple said.
In response, Food and Shelter implemented a two-hour period each day when guests could come in, go through the pantry and select their own food.
“That began to grow and grow, and it became real clear to me that this building was not set up to be an effective food pantry and that we really needed to grow our partnerships in the community to do this right,” Heiple said.
Heiple said she eventually realized that the next step in addressing the issue would be establishing some kind of food and resource center. Food and Shelter met with several collaborative partners in the community interested in assisting with the project, and Heiple said she was feeling positive.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which derailed the process. As Food and Shelter changed its focus to helping those struggling to economically survive, Heiple said the need for such a center became more apparent than ever.
As of last July, the Regional Food Bank reported that over 55% of Cleveland County residents live in an area with low access to food.
“What we learned in that time frame is how many people in this community are consistently struggling to make ends meet,” Heiple said. “What COVID did for us was shine a big light on the needs in this community and really made this project more necessary than ever before.”
While the project slowed down during the pandemic, Heiple said with support from McKown and others, Food and Shelter began shifting its priorities back to the food and resource center.
Inspiration for the facility came from McKown’s February visit to Our Daily Bread, a Stillwater-based food and resource center. McKown, who had already spoken to Heiple about the project, said she thought Norman could replicate the kind of work she saw in Stillwater.
“If we could just have one place like that, there would be more to go around and we could serve more families,” McKown said. “And our shared goal — and I think the goal of everyone in Cleveland Country — is to help eliminate poverty and hunger, so it’s very exciting to contribute and be a part of this.”
At the same time Food and Shelter is pursuing its resource center project, Norman is also in the process of completing its Homelessness Strategic Plan study.
The study, expected to produce a recommendation for how the city should best invest its resources to tackle homelessness, is currently in the data analysis phase, homeless program coordinator Michelle Evans said. The study was approved in January and contracted out to San Francisco-based nonprofit Homebase.
Evans said conclusions from the study, on track to wrap up in October, will help determine if Norman requires something like a combined day and overnight shelter, or if another resource would better address community needs.
Regardless of the study’s results, Evans said the resulting project would be on a different scale and would bear little to no similarity to Food and Shelter’s food and resource center.
“I think this will be a very positive impact, a great thing for the community, and we support Food and Shelter wholeheartedly in this endeavor,” Evans said.
Heiple said she anticipates there will be no overlap with any city projects, and hopes both projects will be able to reduce the impact of homelessness and food insecurity in the community.
“We’ve been very fortunate that City Council has always been very supportive of the work of Food and Shelter,” Heiple said. “I’m optimistic, and I think Norman deserves this.”
Heiple is also trying to make sure that those who live around the planned project have their voices heard. Before she announced the project, Heiple met with numerous neighbors to explain the purpose of the center and address any potential concerns, she said.
Neighbors were concerned about the amount of parked cars from volunteers and others on Reed Avenue, the prospect of increasing the number of homeless people visible in the area and moving the facility entrance away from facing the residential areas.
Heiple said she’s in the process of addressing many of these issues, like agreeing to move the entrance, but also noted that increased parking space would help clear the road.
“We’re making these changes to be good neighbors and listen to their concerns by responding in any way that we can,” Heiple said.