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Spotlight: Woman ensures free lunch for all

BY ALLIE WRIGHT | JANUARY 19, 2011 7:10 AM

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Mary Palmberg only makes $5,600 a year at her job — and she gives most of that back.

As the director of the Iowa City Free Lunch Program, she is the only paid employee in the group, and she uses most of the salary to help out with its expenses.

The 68-year-old stressed that the program heavily relies on the generosity of others to keep the program going.

“[Donations are] how we survive financially,” Palmberg said as cases of cranberry sauce, fruit, and Triscuits were unloaded into the pantry at the Wesley Center, 120 N. Dubuque St.

The program, which started nearly 20 years ago, serves lunch six days a week.

One of the ways Palmberg raises money for the program is simply doing something she loves: biking.

Through rides around the country, people have heard about her story and donated to the cause.

Her first long trip was from St. Paul to New Orleans in 1999, during which she raised $7,000. That one trip bought a new stove, dish sanitizer, and an air conditioning unit for the program’s home.

The program’s biggest costs are rent and milk, which is served with every meal, Palmberg said.

Churches and other organizations frequently donate food and supplies to help.

Turkey noodle casserole, salad, fruit, and cookies were on the menu Jan. 14 at the Wesley Center, where roughly 45 people showed up for lunch.

Typically, Palmberg said, nearly 120 meals are served per day at the center, and there’s no need to sign up: Everyone has access to a free lunch.

“It’s the littlest organization that no one has heard about, only it’s really huge,” the petite, short-haired woman said.

Libris Fidelis, 62, was first in line on Jan. 14.

“For anybody who really needs a meal, this is a great place to come,” he said. The program is one of the best he’s been to, although it doesn’t have lobster tails, he joked.

Fidelis called Palmberg dynamic, dependable, and hard working.

“In a pinch, she finds solutions,” he said, recalling a day in which Palmberg had to recruit a new group of volunteers when one fell through in 15 minutes, providing a tasty meal of soup and sandwiches in time for lunch.

Palmberg said she runs the Free Lunch Program out of her house, using her laptop, because she does not have an office.

Her sons, Mark and Scott, help with the technological side of the program by running the website.

Ava, Palmberg’s 6-year-old granddaughter, helps out by cleaning tables, handing out plates, and refilling salt shakers.

Palmberg credited much of the success of the Free Lunch Program to the roughly 900 volunteers who donate their time.

But volunteers attribute the good work environment to Palmberg.

“She’s so organized, so affirming,” said Bonnie Penno, who volunteers the second Friday of every month. “We’re a community; it’s not just serving.”


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