How one Kansas City business is fighting food waste and delivering meals to families in need | KCUR 89.3

The Kansas City nonprofit’s innovative approach reduces food waste, fights food insecurity and gives back to the family meal.

Pete’s Garden, founded in 2019 by Tamara Weber, works with caterers, restaurants and food service organizations to store unserved, prepared food that would otherwise be thrown away.

Weber and a team of volunteers share and package that food into simple, ready-to-eat meals. These healthy meals are then delivered to social service organizations who distribute them to families in need three days a week.

“This is food that is perfectly fine to eat,” Weber said. “It is often prepared in bulk by caterers or catering facilities that serve many people at the same time. If there is a surplus, there really hasn’t been an easy and safe way in Kansas City to divert that surplus food to people who need it.”

Weber deliberately chose to focus on prepared meals — such as meats, proteins, vegetables and other sides — for several reasons, she said.

First, because food pantries already offer bread, packaged goods, desserts and products. Second, because its goal is to enable families to enjoy a meal together.

“Food recovery for me is just a means to an end, and the end goal is really making a family meal possible,” Weber said. “I grew up in a household where we had family dinner every day. When I think about it now, it’s almost weird.”

Volunteers from Pete's Garden pack the meals.

Volunteers from Pete’s Garden pack the meals.

“For me, the idea is that Pete’s Garden makes it easier for other families, especially single moms and working parents, to be able to take a meal home so they can have a family meal, and that’s easy,” she added.

By her own admission, Weber never intended to start a non-profit organization. But after watching Anthony Bourdain’s documentary “Wasted! A story about food waste” with her daughter as part of a school project, she felt compelled to act.

“That documentary really opened my eyes, because I didn’t know how big of a problem it was for the environment, and at the time I just didn’t realize how much food was being wasted,” Weber said.

American restaurants throw away more than $25 billion in food each year, and only 20 percent donate their excess unserved food, according to statistics on the Pete’s Garden website.

In Kansas City alone, restaurants could serve up to a million meals, and 1 in 6 children don’t have enough to eat.

“I just thought, ‘Well, this is a problem that seems like it’s just a matter of getting from people who have excess food to people who need it,'” Weber said.

At first, Weber researched organizations where she and her daughter could volunteer, but she quickly realized that the gaps at the local level were greater than she had imagined.

“I was surprised that someone hadn’t done something to address the food waste problem in Kansas City,” Weber wrote in a LinkedIn post from March 2020. “Then one morning in May [2019] I woke up early, convinced that the ‘someone’ was me.”

Soon after, Weber quit her job at Hallmark and began strategically planning how she could minimize food waste in Kansas City.

By August, she had pitched her concept to Operation Breakthrough, which was so interested that Pete’s Garden immediately partnered with the organization and began serving meals to families in November.

“It was pretty obvious this was going to work,” Weber said. “The food was available, it really wasn’t that hard to repackage, and working with an organization like Operation Breakthrough, families were there to pick up their kids. It was just a matter of preparing a meal for them when they came.”

Rooted in the family

Pete's Garden founder Tamara Weber prepares takeout containers for packing meals.

Pete’s Garden founder Tamara Weber prepares takeout containers for packing meals.

In many ways, Weber’s desire to save food waste and promote the family meal can be traced back to her own upbringing outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania.

“I grew up in a household where food was very important, and it wasn’t something we wasted, and we used it as a way to bond our family,” Weber said.

Her father, Pete Sluk, loved to grow produce in his backyard garden that their family ate and shared with neighbors, Weber said, which is why she chose the name Pete’s Garden.

“Our family meals almost every day included vegetables from my father’s garden, so it seemed natural to call the organization Pete’s Garden as a way to honor what he did,” Weber said.

Her father was a factory worker who didn’t finish high school, so the family didn’t have much money, she said. Now that she can afford to help others, Weber feels like this is her way of “paying it forward.”

“Now I have enough funds and resources to do something with the education, skills and resources that I have so that I can give back to other families in the community,” she said.

In 2022, Pete’s Garden distributed 65,000 meals to families in Kansas City, and Weber said that could “easily” climb to 125,000 meals in 2023.

No more wasted time

Part of that projected growth is the result of Pete’s Garden moving into a larger kitchen at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral — the organization previously shared space at Operation Breakthrough.

The new location should allow Pete’s Garden to add more food donors, Weber said.

Partner organizations must work in a kitchen controlled by the health department and commit to donating at least 40 pounds of food per week, though Weber added that she would be happy to work with smaller organizations to help divert their excess food elsewhere.

“I just don’t want good prepared food in Kansas City to go to waste,” she said.

Weber could envision a future program involving surplus ingredients where she and volunteers cook meals at home, but said for now she wants to stay focused on the “core” of the mission.

As Pete’s Garden grows, so does the need for volunteers, Weber said, who pack the meals every Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“I think everybody has something they can do to make things better,” Weber said. “Instead of sitting around complaining about how this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work, do something. If I could get people thinking about what they can do to make their little corner of the world a better place, that would be great.”

This story was originally published on Startland News, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

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