Volunteer Deborah Schoenfelder helps store food Wednesday at the CommUnity Food Bank in Pepperwood Plaza in Iowa City. This is the 34th year of Project Holiday, which offers free vacation dinners to families in Johnson County. (Izabela Zaluska / The Gazette)

The shelves at CommUnity Food Bank are full of items that will go into Project Holiday boxes. The food, all you need for a vacation dinner, will go to approximately 1,500 Johnson County families. (Izabela Zaluska / The Gazette)

Irene Amekoudi helps assemble the Project Holiday Wednesday food boxes at the CommUnity Food Bank in Pepperwood Plaza in Iowa City. (Izabela Zaluska / The Gazette)

A Table to Table truck delivers food to the CommUnity Food Bank in Iowa City. The food bank is preparing all preparations for a festive meal that will be distributed free of charge to approximately 1,500 families in Johnson County. (Izabela Zaluska / The Gazette)

Volunteer Deborah Schoenfelder helps store food Wednesday at the CommUnity Food Bank in Iowa City. This is the 34th year of Project Holiday, which offers free vacation dinners to families in Johnson County. (Izabela Zaluska / The Gazette)

IOWA CITY – Approximately 1,500 Johnson County families will receive a free vacation meal this year as part of the community vacation project.

The annual event, now in its 34th year, provides families with all the ingredients they need to prepare a traditional holiday dinner. Free meals include a ham or turkey, sides, vegetables and other groceries.

“Having extra food through the food bank is really essential, and the holiday meal allows them to have that celebration and time with their family that they might not otherwise be able to have,” said Sarah Nelson, Executive Director of CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank.

Sarah Nelson, CommUnity Food Bank

This year’s Project Holiday saw more registrations than in previous years, Nelson said. The rising cost of shopping makes it difficult to keep track of families, she added.

One of the challenges this year, she said, was finding enough hams and turkeys.

As of November 30, the food bank has had approximately 32,000 food bank visits this year.

CommUnity served 3,903 families in fiscal 2021, with 563 families visiting the food bank for the first time, for a total of nearly 31,400 visits, according to the association’s annual report.

The organization continues to look for ways to expand its reach and help more residents. All of the CommUnity brochures have been recently translated into Arabic, French and Spanish, Nelson said.

“We’re going to distribute these (brochures) to the Center for Worker Justice, Open Heartland and various organizations… they now have access not only to food bank information but also to our basic needs program,” said Nelson.

Nelson said she was proud of the food bank as a low barrier service. Individuals must live in Johnson County but do not need to provide income or other documentation requirements.

“We’re going to make sure you get what you need and that people don’t have to jump through a lot of hoops,” Nelson said.

Johnson County families who missed the registration window for Project Holiday are encouraged to stop by the food bank during its regular hours to receive a meal, said Nelson.

Distribution takes place at the CommUnity Pantry at Pepperwood Plaza, 1045 Highway 6 East in Iowa City. Holiday meals can be picked up until Saturday, December 18.

“We expect registrations to continue because we don’t want to have to turn anyone away,” said Nelson. “We are always asking for donations and volunteers to support Project Holiday as these requests continue to arrive.”

Those interested in donating or volunteering to support Project Holiday can find more information at buildbycommunity.org/donate-project-holiday.

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