From the Ground Up

Every day, Whitney Sanger and a score of volunteers pack brown bags with fresh, wholesome and nutritious foods before handing them over to smiling children and relieved parents. This service is part of her non-profit organization known as Project Rooted, which set out to provide no-cost lunches for families in need and educate children about maintaining a nutritious diet.

It all began last October when Whitney, a sales professional with Travel Dubuque, and Kevin Scharpf, a global chef and the owner of Brazen Open Kitchen & Bar in Dubuque, sat down together to brainstorm different ideas to make an impact in their community. As a mom of four and a dad of two, the pair share a passion for food and kids and decided to help local families and children in need gain better access to better food.

Whitney Sanger standing next to a Project Rooted sign holding a new plant.

“We had envisioned this process for kids to have more connections to farmers, gardens, more wholesome, good food here in the community,” Whitney said. “Little did we know it would turn into so much more.”

Project Rooted was officially incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit organization in February 2020 and created a 14-person board made up of individuals from all different types of industries. The organization then shared a Facebook post announcing its plans for cost-free lunches, which was shared over a thousand times and had almost 100,000 engagements, proving to Whitney and Kevin that the need was there, and maybe even greater than they anticipated.

Starting in a space borrowed from a local vendor with a budget of $1,000, Whitney, Kevin and a few volunteers started serving 330 lunches each day. These lunches are professionally prepared by board member “Chef Andy” from the University of Dubuque, using a variety of locally grown produce and items from local vendors such as Millwork Bakery, Calico Bean Market and Prairie Farms.

“Our mission is connecting kids with real food from the ground up. That real food component is what makes our lunches very unique, everything is made fresh from scratch and includes things they’re not getting on a normal basis,” Whitney said.

Along with the wholesome food, the packs also include nutrition education activities that explain how these foods benefit us and an inspirational card written by supporters from throughout Iowa and the U.S., which some families keep and display in their windows.

As more families approached the organization asking for help, whether it was financial, stress, health or transportation related, the need only grew.

During the pandemic, Project Rooted handed out and delivered 850 free meals every day from six distribution sites scattered throughout the community along with an additional 300-400 weekend meal packs. The organization has also provided 2,000 organic seeds at no cost to community members, built raised garden beds and started an incentive program that provides families in need with money to spend at local farmers’ markets.

Today, the organization continues providing educational meal kits, offers a variety of kids’ programs, provides complimentary seeds and connects kids with local growers/producers. Such a large effort requires strong support from the community and an abundance of volunteers, a need that fortunately has been easy to fill.

“The amount of community partnerships that we’ve been able to make has been absolutely incredible,” Whitney said. “We definitely want people to know that we came together to make a difference in the community, and we will continue to do that. Project Rooted will always be a non-profit and we’ll always be here.”

Published March 12, 2024

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