A 1998 city ordinance bans distributing food without a permit.
The director of Love Wins Ministries, the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, said the group was preparing to hand out free coffee and sausage biscuits to the homeless when a police officer, "for the first time ever," warned staff and volunteers to stop, WRAL-TV in Raleigh reported Sunday.
In a post on the organization's blog, Hollowell wrote, "An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested."
Response to the post from local social media was highly critical of the police threat.
"Unbelievable! It's sad that there's no care or compassion for people," one person wrote on WRAL's Facebook page.
"This is outrageous," wrote another reader, calling the police threat an "overreach at best."
City Council Member Bonner Gaylord defended the ordinance.
"It's important for us to maintain a clean and safe environment in our city, especially in our parks," he wrote on Facebook. "However, we cannot let those who are in the most need go without help."
Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in a statement the police officer was "trying to let everyone know this is the existing ordinance, and this is why it's not really working right now."
"We're going to find a better way," she said, noting the issue would be taken to the public service committee "immediately" to work out a plan "to reach out to those in need."