By Doug Lindner
SOLON– Why did the chickens cross the road?
Because they fell out of the back of a truck topper.
Jay Proffitt has heard lots of chicken jokes in the last week.
Proffitt, along with his wife Helen and Frank and Shelley Kuennen, had been planning to secretly supply the Solon Community Food Pantry with about 60 chickens for Christmas.
But when a cooler containing half of the chickens fell out of a pick-up truck’s topper on the way back from an Amish processor in Kalona, it kick-started a Christmastime news flurry that drew national attention and the interest of the state’s meat and poultry inspectors.
It all started a few months ago in October, when Frank Kuennen of the Solon Feed Mill approached Proffitt, of Jay Proffitt Construction, with the idea of helping raise local chickens for the pantry.
“I had the shed, he had the feed, what a perfect combination,” Proffitt said.
The two jointly purchased 150 chickens about seven weeks before December, and on Wednesday, Dec. 18, an acquaintance volunteered to take pens filled with 60 chickens to a processor in Kalona and then bring them back.
The chickens were butchered and bagged and placed in two coolers in the back of the truck, but on the way back to Solon, one of the coolers fell through the rear door of the pickup truck’s topper somewhere east of the intersection of Highway 1 and Interstate 380 on Iowa City’s southwest side.
They reportedly fell into the path of Blaine Thomas of Iowa City, who gathered them up and posted word of his discovery on his Facebook page, using a name written on one of the coolers as a clue.
The name was not that of Proffitt, but of someone else who he purchased the cooler for, and after some phone calls, Thomas and Proffitt hooked up the next day.
Thomas invited KCRG TV9 to the meeting as well, and that night the Cedar Rapids television station broadcast a news segment about Thomas’ discovery which was subsequently added to KCRG.com with the headline “Load Of Chickens In The Road Turns Into ‘Christmas Miracle.’”
The next day, Sandy Hanson was at the Solon Community Food Pantry helping stock recently purchased food and overseeing a crew moving a freezer donated to the pantry by Solon’s Steve Stange when the phone rang.
It was a representative of the state’s Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau, one of 15 divisions under the Iowa Department of Agriculture.
The inspector, Hanson said, asked for assurances that the chickens would not be served through the pantry.
Hanson had been aware of the pending delivery of the chickens– they had been expected Monday, Dec. 23, and that’s one reason the freezer was being moved– but was not aware of the details regarding their processing. She directed the inspector to the two local secret Santas.
“We feel very safe with the food we accept,” Hanson noted.
It turned out that none of the chickens– skidmarked or not– could be served through the pantry unless they had been inspected and approved with an US Department of Agriculture (USDA) stamp. The Kalona processor, while well-respected, did not provide the needed service, and as a result, the donated chickens could not become part of the Christmas meals the pantry was planning to hand out, Hanson said.
Instead of the Christmas miracle the television station had reported, the pantry organizers and its good-hearted donors were suddenly faced with no usable chickens and only two days to find replacements.
Unbeknown to the pantry and its supporters, however, help was almost on the way.
More donors– staff in the Des Moines office of Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey– had taken up a collection and had combed the state’s capitol for 64 freshly processed and USDA-approved chickens.
Hanson received another phone call, this time one with good news.
An unidentified individual would be delivering the chickens Monday morning.
“We were blessed with a surprise donation,” Hanson said.
And as a result, the pantry handed out 37 ready-to-prepare Christmas meals to clients Monday, just as scheduled.
So it all worked out in the end, and while Proffitt has had to endure some gentle ribbing from friends, he doesn’t mind.
“How many guys in Solon wear a pair of lederhosen?” asked Proffitt, who annually dons the German breeches and plays stumpfiddle for diners at Solon’s congregate meals site. “I’ve been blessed,” he said. “God gave me heavy equipment to play with. When you have a passion for something it doesn’t become work.”
Lots of people in the Solon community give of themselves, he said, finding ways to share their talents and interests with those in need.
“Everybody has the opportunity to share things they already have,” he said. “It just makes the world a better place.”
Kuennen said he hopes to continue to raise food locally for the panty, but next time, he’ll find a butcher with the right requirements for the state.
“We’re in the feed business. It’s a good fit,” he said of supporting the pantry.
“This is something Jay and I want to keep doing,” he said. “He’s fun to work with.”
“What was awesome,” Proffitt said, “is that somebody donated a freezer. And the pantry needed a freezer. Somebody donated chickens. And they needed chickens.”
It’s that kind of generosity that has helped keep the pantry in operation, Hanson said.
“Our pantry thrives on it,” she said, noting the food program has gone from serving a dozen families to two dozen families.
The pantry, located in the basement of the Solon United Methodist Church, opened in June 2012. The pantry currently accepts donations from 9 a.m. until noon on Mondays and is open for distribution from 2 until 6 p.m. the same day.