Project Rooted

Whitney Sanger, co-founder and president of Project Rooted, cuts vegetables on March 21 as she and others prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque.

Project Rooted’s mission doesn’t end with full bellies.

Yes, the new Dubuque nonprofit does strive to connect children, predominantly from low-income families, with food and healthy meals. But it’s not enough to sate their caloric minimums and send them on their way.

“Our mission is to connect kids to real food from the ground up,” said Whitney Sanger, who, along with Brazen owner and chef Kevin Scharpf, launched the nonprofit earlier this year. “We had the same values and the same mission we wanted to reach toward, and that was making a difference in our community through food.”

But while the two set out to educate young people about sustainable, healthy and local food sources, they couldn’t have predicted how important their project would become.

In recent weeks, thousands of children from throughout the tri-state area were told they could not return to the their classrooms, often with little notice. The COVID-19 coronavirus rapidly escalated to a full-blown pandemic just weeks after the first cases were reported in the U.S.

For many kids, that means more of dad’s PB and J and mom’s mac and cheese than usual. But for some families, a reliable, important source of nutrition for children suddenly was stripped away.

So Sanger and company shifted gears.

“When we got going, we had a few projects in the works,” she said. “We still do. But we saw with everything happening in the community an emergent need, something where we knew we could make a difference and had the ability to.”

Sanger, Scharpf, partners at Convivium and a legion of volunteers last week began distributing free meals to kids 18 and younger. They even partnered with Western Dubuque Community Schools, opening meal sites in Peosta, Epworth and Farley to supplement other meal offerings offered by the district.

Kids can pick up a healthy “grab and go” meal once per day, complete with “notes of hope” written by area kids.

The project couldn’t go forward without help from the community at large, Sanger said. But officials from businesses in all industries were practically knocking down the door to help.

“We’ve had endless calls of people saying, ‘What can I do? What can I provide? What do you need?’” Sanger said.

One of the first major donors was Premier Bank. Sanger met with bank President Jeff Mozena, who quickly got on board.

“I thought it was a good cause,” Mozena said. “We try to reach out to the community and we saw that as a pretty good (opportunity).”

Supporting local initiatives that battle hunger is a point of emphasis for Premier, Mozena said.

“It’s difficult to fill the gap sometimes,” he said. “From our corporate perspective, we support a number of things in downtown Dubuque to provide (meals and youth enrichment).”

The current public health crisis made this type of philanthropy even more relevant.

“There’s a number of really great organizations providing food product to the downtown and the community,” Mozena said. “This seemed like one that might really be hitting the niche.”

As the project grows and the immediate need for meals subsides, Sanger hopes to focus more on the missions of education and sustainability. Leaders want to start a seed program, so kids will be able to grow — and eat — their own produce, and they hope to teach proper ways of disposing of food.

“Education is a huge part of what we’re really trying to do,” Sanger said. “Really educating kids on the full life-cycle of what food is. And that starts with a seed.”

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