Food Fight 

A group of Norman activists is fighting the city to maintain access to free food for the unhoused.

“Having food be accessible benefits all of us.”

This statement, seemingly simple and inarguable, comes from Bridget Burns, co-founder of the group UNR, or Uprooted & Rising: Indian Territory, and one of the leaders of a band of local activists that set up and maintain a free, accessible pantry and refrigerator in Norman. Along with the owners and staff of the Resonator art space, and with help from a few unaffiliated volunteers, the pantry and fridge had provided much needed availability of fresh, worthwhile food, as well as providing cold water and electrolyte drinks to help protect against the blisteringly hot summer months, all in one easily accessible place.

But that changed at the end of July when an archaic city ordinance was used to push the fridge over a mile away inside the Outreach Thrift & Donation Center.

“It’s unfortunate, but Norman has some people that are very unkind to unhoused people,” says Alan Hatcher, a volunteer with UNR that has helped to develop and maintain free fridges and pantries in other communities around the OKC Metro. “The beautiful thing about the original location was the visibility. People knew where it was and it was easy to access, and other people could see it being used and could see how it was necessary and important.”

That necessity and importance has become a ballooning concern in a time of increasing pandemic-prompted unemployment and expiring eviction moratoria. UNR and the Resonator team see the fridge and pantry combination as a small and straightforward way of helping to address those spiraling issues without the bureaucracy at work in many assistance programs.

“Getting on food stamps can actually be more difficult than people realize, and it takes a long time,” said Rai Fordyce, another one of the fridge volunteers with Resonator. “There’s so much paperwork, and you have to provide proof-of-residency, which not everyone can do.”

In June, the city government, at the urging of some very active and vocal citizen groups, hit the team with potential violations of two city ordinances designed for health and safety. The first, Section 10-203, involved questions of trash and sanitation.

“They eventually just kind of dropped that one,” Hatcher said. “Before it moved, people had started to really take care of it and clean it.”

The second, Section 10-204, wasn’t so easily shot down.

“It’s about having an unattended appliance outside,” explained Hatcher. “It comes from the 40s or 50s when they used to manufacture refrigerators that locked from the outside, and kids could get stuck inside them. Obviously that’s not a concern anymore.”

The city demanded that they move the fridge to a different location where it could be kept indoors and attended. Outreach Thrift was happy to oblige, but the distance from the pantry and their available business hours were immediately recognized as problems for the community members the project is intended to help.

“Going from the pantry to the fridge at Outreach can be an hour round-trip on foot,” said Jenna Ziegler, a volunteer that got involved with the project after donations of her own homegrown herbs were a hit among the fridge’s users.

She said that, from what she’s seen, the fridge and pantry are a valuable re- source for more than just the city’s homeless population.

“A lot of the first things that we see go are potatoes and eggs, things that need to be cooked pretty quickly, and milk, which needs to be refrigerated,” Ziegler said. “So it’s clear that a lot of the people utilizing the fridge are people that maybe do have homes that are maybe struggling with food availability.”

With so many different people and communities within Norman seemingly all relying on the fridge for food availability, the volunteers are adamant that it should stay in a location easily accessible by the city’s bus routes and walkable areas, and that it should be accessible 24 hours a day.

“Everybody in the community thinks that this ordinance really doesn’t apply,” Hatcher said. “I think it’s fair to direct some frustration toward the city. Mayor Clark says they’re fearful of a lawsuit. I think it’s pretty awful that you would be willing to limit people’s access to food just to avoid a lawsuit or to avoid upsetting some people in the city.”

“I can see this potentially affecting the mayoral race in Norman,” added Helen Grant, part of the Resonator team. “Mayor Clark has already been forced to speak about it just because it’s started getting press and people are bringing it up.”

There has been a small bit of movement on the city’s part. An assistant city attorney has been in contact to discuss drafting a new ordinance that would make a specific exemption for community fridges like this one, with plans for it to go before the Norman city council early next month. While the team said that the city attorney does seem “genuine in his support,” they said he would neither commit to letting them see the draft before it goes to the council,

nor would he give them specifics on what part of the city code might be changed. While they wait for some kind of concrete decision, the team continues maintaining the fridge in its current location and stocking it with donations from the community. Monetary donations come in through Venmo and CashApp ac- counts that they have set up solely for the fridge and pantry, but they also see a remarkable amount of generosity from the public helping to stock on their own. “Donations range from people growing their own food and bringing it by to people getting from the Food Bank, taking the things they want from their supply, and then bringing the stuff they don’t care for to drop it off and pay it forward,” Hatcher said.

In addition to fresh foods, water, and canned goods, the team says that they always need things like mosquito repellant and hygiene products as well.

You can find Venmo and CashApp information for donations on Facebook and Instagram at UNR_ ResonatorFridge, and Norman residents can call or message Mayor Clark’s office and the City Council to voice support for the project.



For more information about ResonatorFridge, visit www.facebook.com/resonatorfridgeOK.

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