Johnson County Crisis Center serves up the holiday spirit

Volunteers Shannen Johnson, Nancy Haggerty and Marin Swesey bag holiday groceries at the Johnson County Crisis Center Tuesday. -- photo by Eleanore Taft
Volunteers Shannen Johnson, Nancy Haggerty and Marin Swesey bag holiday groceries at the Johnson County Crisis Center Tuesday. — photo by Eleanore Taft

The Johnson County Crisis Center was packed with food and people Tuesday as Project Holiday kicked off its holiday meal grocery service.

The project, which is in its 29th year, serves about 1,800 people on average each holiday season. Sara Sedlacek, the Crisis Center’s communications and development director, said the number of people served increases every year, which she attributed at least in part to rising costs of living and stagnant wages. More than 4,000 people are expected this year, according to a press release.

“We saw a huge increase after the floods and in 2008 with the housing crash, but those numbers did not go back down,” she said.

While pre-registration for Project Holiday is preferred, nobody will be turned away. Distribution will continue today from 12 – 4:30 p.m. and Thursday, Dec. 22 from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at the Crisis Center (1121 Gilbert Ct., Iowa City). The North Liberty Community Pantry (89 N Jones Blvd., North Liberty) will also have food available today from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. Holiday groceries were distributed at the Coralville Ecumenical Food Pantry yesterday. Donations are still being accepted; $25 provides one local family with a holiday meal.

Mary Carter was among those visiting the Crisis Center Tuesday to get groceries for herself and her three children. She said she is watching her cholesterol and appreciates that there are always healthy choices available.

“I have two jobs right now,” Carter said. “Why am I here? You would think that I shouldn’t be here, but I have to be here because I can’t provide like I want to provide.”

Carter said she believes the economy, especially increasing food and gas prices, are contributing to food insecurity.

Project Holiday recipients have access to the Crisis Center’s usual grocery store-style pantry, which is stocked with additional festive items purchased from Hy-Vee and U.S. Foods. Crisis Center officials said they work to include foods that are culturally appropriate to their clients’ varied traditions. For example, because turkey is less popular in non-Western cultures, the Crisis Center offers whole chickens as an entree option as well.

“Fresh produce is popular with all of our clients, but that seems to be especially true for clients who were raised in a non-Western culture,” Food Bank and Emergency Assistance Director Sarah Benson Witry said in an email.

The food bank has seen an increase in French and Arabic speakers accessing their services in recent years due to an influx of refugees and other immigrants to Johnson County, Sedlacek said. The Crisis Center is still looking for French- and Arabic-speaking volunteers for the next few days.

Most of the new French- and Arabic-speaking clients come from North Africa, particularly Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Witry said, and face challenges due to language barriers that can make it more difficult to find employment. Many of these clients also have larger families and fewer supports within the community, she said.

Project Holiday is a partnership between between the Crisis Center and MidWestOne bank. The bank provided a financial donation, hosted the project’s launch Oct. 21 and provides volunteers to direct traffic, check out visitors, bag groceries and restock as food flies off the shelves.

Amy Hospodarsky, who has been a Crisis Center board member for two years and is also a MidWestOne employee, volunteered to help direct the crowd at the food bank Tuesday afternoon.

“Just the breadth of services they provide is really valuable,” Hospodarsky said when asked why she got involved with the Crisis Center. “Really to see the need, it’s been busy all day, and we know that, you see the statistics, but to be able to see it makes a huge difference.”

Jamie Helmick of Iowa City visits the food bank weekly, and went there for holiday groceries Tuesday for the third year in a row. Helmick said the food she brings home from the Crisis Center allows her to spend time with her family, and to have a more varied diet than she could otherwise afford.

“Food brings people together, and it makes people happy,” she said. “I’ve spent holidays in the hospital where I wasn’t able to sit down with my family and have a family meal, and I really missed that love and relationship building.”

Helmick said that if hunger was more visible, more action might be taken to address it.

“Maybe if people were more aware of how much food insecurity there is in Iowa City,” she said. “I don’t think lots of people are aware that it’s a good chunk of the population that faces food insecurity.”

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