Project Holiday is providing 1,500 families in Johnson County with holiday meals

Shari Ellis (left) and Director of Development Julie Winter (right) place dairy goods into the refrigerator on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Around 1,500 families will enjoy a home-cooked holiday meal this year thanks to CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank’s 34th annual Project Holiday.

Families can receive their choice of entrée, sides, vegetables and other grocery items through this Saturday, Dec. 18, at Pepperwood Plaza, 1045 Hwy 6 East, during regular food bank hours.

Shari Ellis has been volunteering at CommUnity for 15 years. She said that in recent years the number of families accessing Project Holiday has increased.

“I mean, it was going up anyway, and then COVID happened,” Ellis said. “We serve a lot of people in this area, which is unfortunate, but we’re happy that we can do it.”

CommUnity locally sources much of Project Holiday’s food. The chicken comes from a local farmer in Riverside, and other meats are sourced through Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP), New Pioneer Food Co-op and Hy-Vee. The produce comes from community donations, HACAP, Hy-Vee and a distributor in Minnesota. CommUnity also partners with their next-door neighbor, Table to Table, a nonprofit that collects food that would otherwise be thrown away from such sources as restaurants, grocery stores and farms, and distributes it to organizations that serve people experiencing or on the cusp of food insecurity.

A sample table of holiday food provided by Project Holiday, on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

CommUnity has been providing crisis counseling, helping families pay for rent and utilities and assisting people starting new jobs with necessities like uniforms. This year, their food bank, mobile pantries and deliveries have had around 15,000 unique visitors, according to Executive Director Sarah Nelson.

The nonprofit organization began in 1969 when two University of Iowa freshmen, Kathy Szymoniak Keeley and Carolyn Hock, sought medical resources for their roommate who attempted suicide. They discovered that there were no crisis counseling services offered in Johnson County. With the help of Verne Kelley, the Community Mental Health Center’s director, they created The Crisis Center of Johnson County in 1970, which later became CommUnity. From there they expanded their community services, creating a small food bank in 1978.

And it’s grown over the past decades. In FY2021 they delivered around 1.5 million pounds of food and served 650 families weekly, their annual report shows. In total, they’ve provided meals for 3,903 families, and of those 563 visited the food bank for the first time.

“Between food expenses and housing expenses, that is pretty much taking up their entire budget. So it’s really important for food bank programs to assist and help subsidize that, as well as events like Project Holiday, so they can have time with their family,” Nelson said.

In 2020, households in the lowest income category spent 27 percent of their income on food, while households with the highest income only spent 7 percent of their income on food, the Department of Agriculture reports.

Lower income households are routinely cost burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. In 2019, more than four-fifths of households with incomes under $25,000 were at least moderately cost burdened, and 62 percent spent over half their income. During this time, 58 percent of households earning between $25,000 and $49,999 were cost burdened as well.

Susan Dozark places food on the racks on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Dozark has been volunteering at CommUnity for a year. “I just needed more volunteer work. I work at the Free Lunch. Our church does a meal there once a month,” Dozark said. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

It’s been 34 years since Project Holiday began in 1987, and the COVID-19 pandemic has made this year’s project especially arduous, from sourcing food to finding volunteers, said Nelson.

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“The cost of meat, and supply of meat, has been particularly challenging this year. Getting turkeys, hams, faux turkeys, it’s been a really big supply chain issue,” Nelson said. “Staffing issues, just supply in general issues, there was also just a massive ham recall, perfectly timed for the holidays.”

In the past year, CommUnity has hired more staff members to account for the rising need in the community, as well as the lack of volunteers.

“We lost quite a few volunteers at the beginning of the pandemic when people just didn’t feel safe volunteering. So we’re still trying to get back to that baseline,” she said.

As of October 2021, they have around 323 active volunteers in the food bank. That time last year, they only had 141 volunteers. Nelson said they still have volunteer opportunities available, including delivering Project Holiday meals.

One of their recent recruits is Marcia Akin. Today was her first day volunteering,

“I decided that I really wanted to give back to the community,” Akin said. She chose CommUnity because it was easy to sign up online, and they were flexible with her schedule.

Marcia Akin sorts through donated bread and other baked goods on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. Today was Akin’s first day of volunteering. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Ellis began volunteering after retiring from her finance and accounting career at Procter & Gamble.

“This organization probably helps more people than any other organization in Johnson County. They do so many things, and it’s just a good organization to volunteer for,” Ellis said.

“You enjoy being with the other volunteers, but when a client tells you how happy they are that we’re here and that you’ve helped them … that’s the biggest reward, knowing that you’ve made it better for somebody less fortunate.”

CommUnity is accepting monetary donations for Project Holiday through their website. A $25 donation can provide one family with a holiday meal. You can sign up to volunteer on their website as well.

Boxes of food at the CommUnity food bank on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village