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Project Holiday gives more reason to celebrate

Crisis Center helps feed families during holiday season
Volunteer Carole Olney hands food items to Michael Plummer, one recipient of the Crisis Center of Johnson County’s Project Holiday. Crisis Center and pantry volunteers distributed holiday meals at the North Liberty pantry last Wednesday, Dec. 17. Plummer says he feels blessed to have the North Liberty Community Pantry close by, as he and his family use it frequently to supplement his food budget. (photos by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– Could you buy groceries for a family of three on a budget of just over $100 each month?
It’s the difficult reality for North Liberty resident Michael Plummer and many others like him who must stretch every dollar just to get by.
But Plummer and about 1,500 other families will have a brighter holiday this year, thanks to Project Holiday 2014, a collaborative effort of the Crisis Center of Johnson County and its partners that distributes holiday meals to area families.
Crisis Center Food Bank staff and volunteers joined those at the North Liberty Community Pantry on Wednesday, Dec. 17, to hand out items like frozen turkeys, chickens and vegetarian entrees, fresh fruits, potatoes, onions, carrots, boxed stuffing and packages of gravy mix to people who might not otherwise be able to afford what many consider traditional holiday staples.
Project Holiday is in its 27th year, but those holiday meals were previously distributed at a single site in Iowa City. In 2012, the Crisis Center Food Bank brought a number of Project Holiday meals to patrons of the North Liberty pantry and to the Coralville Recreation Center, instead of making them come to Iowa City. This is the third season for the partnership, said Sarah Benson Witry, Food Bank & Emergency Assistance Director.
“It is important for people who don’t have a way to get down (to Iowa City),” Witry said. “We just served someone who wasn’t signed up to receive Project Holiday, but we were able to provide it to him here today. The reason he was unable to get to Iowa City was because he doesn’t have a car.”
Lack of transportation is a problem for many, concurred North Liberty Pantry Executive Director Tina DuBois, and that limits access to other needed services.
“North Liberty is an island, out here on its own with a rapidly growing population but not much transportation available,” said DuBois. “For people with limited resources, to use two gallons of gas to get to Iowa City isn’t very efficient. The Crisis Center bringing its program here makes it a much better use of resources. It allows families to access this program in a way that doesn’t mean they can’t get their kids shoes or buy gas to get to work.”
The Crisis Center raises funds each year for Project Holiday, soliciting monetary donations to enable them to order in bulk and provide 1,500 families consistent food choices throughout the event. Certain business partners and other sponsors make important contributions as well, such as US Foods providing a refrigerated trailer for storing the pallets of frozen poultry, said Witry. Buying in large quantities and getting deals from participating vendors has allowed the Crisis Center to get the average cost of a holiday meal– including a whole turkey– down to about $20 per family.
“Trying to provide a holiday meal for your family, in addition to higher winter heating costs, in addition to maybe (experiencing) reduced hours if you work in a (seasonal) job like construction or landscaping– especially if you want to have a big-ticket item like a turkey– that can be very tough. This is a nice way to let people enjoy family time together, whether they celebrate a particular family tradition or just want to have a nice family meal,” Witry said.
The program was expected to serve about 100 families at the Coralville site, and between 1,300 and 1,400 in Iowa City.
Thirty families came to the North Liberty pantry last week to fill baskets and bags with hearty, healthy meal items. DuBois said some of those came from outlying communities, like Tiffin, as well.
“For them, it’s even farther to the Crisis Center, so to be able to have access points elsewhere in the county makes it very helpful,” DuBois said.
Michael Plummer has had his food stamp rations cut five times in a year. Without the pantry, he, his wife and daughter would at times be without food.
“I wouldn’t know how to feed my wife, myself and my daughter,” he said.
Plummer currently does not have a vehicle, and rides his bicycle to the pantry to fill a backpack with grocery items in the summer; as someone who spent time in the military, he said, he is used to carting heavy backpacks around. Plummer feels blessed to have the North Liberty Community Pantry in his town, and he spreads the word to others in need.
“It’s here. It’s good. It’s not a bad or negative thing,” said Plummer. “The food banks where I grew up don’t compare to this place. It’s a good, positive thing in North Liberty and it should continue.”
DuBois said she is also pleased the North Liberty pantry can serve as a distribution site for Project Holiday.
“It’s a busy and crazy time of year, but it’s also a time of joy because this helps families participate in what we all want to have; a family gathering involving delicious food… and isn’t that what holidays are all about?”

For information about the Crisis Center and Project Holiday: jccrisiscenter.org
For information about the North Liberty Community Pantry: northlibertycommunitypantry.org