Food Pantry Furor—Was it Justified?


The long queues of recipients are now managed by a new system
that addresses the City’s safety concerns.

By Timothy Walker  |  Photos By Michael Morris

Nicole Adkins is smiling more these days, but she’s still not entirely happy. “Did you see our truck out front?” she asks. “They graffitied it last night.”

With all the attention that’s been focused on Nicole and her food pantry lately, a little paint on a truck is honestly the least of her concerns. With God’s Grace, the food distribution charity Nicole has directed since its inception, has received more than its fair share of coverage from the local media since Jan. 10, when zoning concerns raised by the city of Dayton literally put the organization’s future as a public service in jeopardy.

Started in December of 2015, With God’s Grace is a non-profit 501(c)(3) charitable organization staffed entirely by volunteers and funded through donations, and in just over two years of operation the food pantry has provided over a million-and-a-half pounds of free food to hungry families in the Dayton area. The charity holds regular mobile food pantries in locations all over the Miami Valley, and they also have weekly food distributions on Wednesdays at the warehouse they began using last summer. It is that warehouse, located at 622 Springfield Street in Dayton, and the food distributions there, that have been the focus of a recent and very public battle with the city of Dayton over zoning issues. The efforts on the part of the city and zoning officials had the staff and directors of With God’s Grace concerned.

“Everything is going much better with the city now—they’re working with us—but then we came in this morning and saw our truck got graffitied last night,” she said when speaking to the Dayton City Paper recently at the warehouse. “As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. I wouldn’t have minded if someone wanted to paint the truck, but couldn’t they have just painted “With God’s Grace” on the side?” She laughs, and a number of her volunteers laugh with her. Laughter is a good sound to hear at the food pantry. For the past month, it was in short supply while the city of Dayton and a variety of city officials worked to ensure that complaints from local residents regarding zoning and safety concerns were being taken seriously by Adkins and her staff. 

The November 9 fire that destroyed the Food 4 Less grocery store at 3129 East Third St. created a food desert in the east end of town, leaving older and mobility-challenged residents uncertain about where they might be able to find groceries, explains Nicole. “Before the fire, we were doing between 400-500 families each week out of the warehouse. Last week, on our Wednesday, Jan. 31 distribution, we served 753 families. That’s 2,364 individual people, and a total of 21,276 meals.”

Obviously, with over 700 local families lining up for food assistance in one day, a real need exists for the service Nicole and her volunteers are providing their community. The city of Dayton agrees that the food pantry is providing a valuable service, but reiterates that, even when doing good work, charities must ensure they abide by the laws, including zoning and building codes.

“To ensure that the building occupancies are compliant with the building and zoning codes is really the main priority of the city of Dayton,” says Toni Bankston, Chief Communications Officer for the City of Dayton. “With regards to occupancy, the pantry applied for a permit to occupy the building for one use, and that was warehouse and storage, and then ultimately engaged in the additional use of the food pantry without first adhering to either the building code or the zoning ordinance. So that’s the sticking point with us.”

“And,” she continues, “although the city recognizes that they are providing a highly valued service to the community—no one would dispute that—it’s important that the service be provided in a safe, non-hazardous, code-compliant manner. So the significance of this is underscored when one considers that large lines of people are assembling outside the building, so we want to make sure that they are in a safe environment. So that has really been our contention. I’m not the zoning expert for the city, but that has been our main concern. We’re not disputing the fact that she’s providing a valuable service, but the city of Dayton has to ensure that that service is being provided in a safe environment, and that is ensured by the building codes and the zoning ordinance.”

Altruism, while always admirable, is never an excuse for ignoring the law or for putting the safety of the public you are trying to serve in jeopardy. But when asked about the zoning issues, and whether With God’s Grace was in any way negligent when it came to acquiring permits and notifying the city of it’s plans to use the warehouse as a distribution center, Adkins is adamant that the charity was not. “They knew what we were doing,” she says. “I’ve got all the emails, and can show them to you.”

With God’s Grace began leasing the Springfield Street warehouse in July of 2017. Formerly operating out of a warehouse in the Webster Street area of Northridge, the food pantry was forced to relocate after their landlord there began receiving complaints from other businesses in the area. “We were running out of the warehouse on Webster Street,” continues Nicole Adkins, Executive Director of With God’s Grace. “And there were no concerns. Then the neighbors had problems—we never had any problems with zoning at all. But our landlord began getting complaints from nearby businesses. In my opinion, they just didn’t want to see people in need.”

The charity tried to deal with the complaints, requesting that those in need make appointments ahead of time in order to decrease the length of the lines on distribution days. Changes in parking locations and changes in distribution methods were tried, but ultimately the pantry was forced to look for another warehouse. “We were trying to get out of there in March,” continues Adkins. “But we weren’t able to get out because of the zoning issues here on Springfield Street. We would have gotten out, but we didn’t get in here until the end of July. The good thing is we pay the same amount here that we were paying our landlord on Webster Street. It’s a different landlord, but we have three times the space here that we had before, and the rent is the same, so it’s a lot better location for us. We raise money to cover our expenses by doing a lot of fundraisers, and we have some donors who also help.”

When the pantry was preparing to leave Northridge and move to the new warehouse in late July of 2017, Adkins says that she made sure their plans to use the new facility as both a warehouse for food storage and a distribution center were clearly stated on the paperwork. But on Jan. 10 of this year, according to Nicole, City of Dayton Zoning Administrator Carl Daugherty approached her during one of their weekly food distributions and placed his business card on her desk. “He gave me his card and said to call him in the morning,” she says, “And that was it. We actually had two visits from zoning that day—Alan Carr came out earlier that afternoon, before we even opened for the 4 o’clock shift, and his problem was more that people were parking illegally in the parking lot.”

“He says he found out that we were operating an illegal food pantry in January,” she says, referring to Zoning Administrator Daugherty. Weeks of phone calls, meetings, and television coverage ensued, and the story became a popular one on social media, with many in the community decrying the city’s attempts to simply enforce the zoning laws. The furor over the situation then culminated in a meeting between Nicole and city officials, a meeting which included Daugherty, Chief Plans Examiner Steve Schoener and Jeff Samuelson from the State of Ohio Board of Building Standards, on Monday, Jan. 22 at the city’s zoning department. 

“At that meeting,” continues Adkins. “We were told by the city and by representatives of the state of Ohio that we’d be allowed to continue operating as a food pantry, and that if we made a few changes we’d be able to distribute food from the warehouse, but that we’d have to request a variance on the building’s zoning through the city’s board of appeals. That request, which we’ve submitted, cost us $200.” The hearing on the request for the zoning variance will be held on Feb. 27, and is open to the public.

The pantry was told by city officials that they needed to change the parking areas, move the line of people awaiting food to a different side of the building, and also prevent people from parking on certain streets in order to continue their regular Wednesday distributions. With God’s Grace has since complied with the requests, although additional expenditures such as barricades and line staging equipment, all related to the changes, wound up costing the non-profit over $2000.

The volunteers who keep the charity running smoothly are driven by a love for service and a desire to help those in need, and they insist that they will do whatever it takes to keep the pantry operating. “No one is ever turned away,” says Cheryl Arwood, one of the workers. “I’ve been volunteering for With God’s Grace for—well, it will be two years in April. I’m retired now, and it’s just that I need to get out and do something for the community. I’ve always been busy raising kids, and a friend of mine told me about them, when they were a new organization. I went and checked it out and fell in love with it.” 

“We have a lot of people who called and offered their support to us,” continues Nicole Adkins. “Through phone calls, emails, and Facebook. We had people putting together petitions and getting signatures, we had people calling county officials and talking to them, sending emails. We want to say thank you to everyone who tried to help—we really had a lot of support. And, in turn, we’re just here to try and help everybody.”

One example of recent support took the charity completely by surprise—Jeremy Davis, a technician from local business Distinguished Mobile Detailing took it upon himself to come to the warehouse and look at the charity’s truck, to see if he could help. Even though the business doesn’t specialize in graffiti removal, Davis worked outside in the cold for hours, carefully removing the spray paint that was defacing the vehicle. When he was done and Nicole asked him what she owed for the service, he replied, “You do so much for the community, the least I could do is remove the graffiti from your truck. You don’t owe us anything.” A life of good deeds sometimes does get rewarded.

Louis Berkhof, the American-Dutch Reformed theologian, defined grace as “the unmerited operation of God in the heart of man.” While I am not a religious man, it is obvious that Nicole Adkins is doing God’s work through her warehouse in East Dayton, and helping her community by providing much food to hurting families and individuals from all over the Miami Valley. The lesson to be learned from the difficulties With God’s Grace has had in recent weeks is this—whether you are running a charity or running a for-profit business, it is always in your best interest to know the laws, and ensure that they are followed, to the letter.

“We’re just glad to still be here,” says Nicole in closing. “We’re proud that God has enabled us to help so many who are in need.”

Amen to that. 

With God’s Grace’s warehouse is located at 622 Springfield Street in Dayton. Their phone number is 937.397.4124. They distribute food from the warehouse on the first, second, and third Wednesday of every month (and fifth if applicable), and they have remote food distributions on a regular basis at locations in Xenia, Miamisburg, East Dayton, Drexel, Vandalia, and Brookville. For more information or to request assistance, call or go to WithGodsGracePantry.org.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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