Taking root: Community organization Project Rooted makes a difference through food


Whitney Sanger, co-founder and president of Project Rooted, cuts and sorts tomatoes as she and others prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for schoolchildren at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Kristie Arthofer cuts cauliflower as she and other volunteers prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children organized through Project Rooted at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Kristie Arthofer cuts cauliflower as she and other volunteers prepare vegetables. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Kristie Arthofer cuts cauliflower as she and other volunteers prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children organized through Project Rooted at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Abbey Drolema stamps brown paper bags for the meals. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Stacy Raap, of Dubuque, cuts cucumbers as a volunteer with Project Rooted. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Stacy Raap, of Dubuque, cuts cucumbers as she and other volunteers prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children organized through Project Rooted at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Stacy Raap, of Dubuque, cuts cucumbers as she and other volunteers prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children organized through Project Rooted at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Stacy Raap, of Dubuque, cuts cucumbers as she and other volunteers prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children organized through Project Rooted at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Stacy Raap, of Dubuque, cuts cucumbers as she and other volunteers prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children organized through Project Rooted at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Whitney Sanger, co-founder and president of Project Rooted, cuts vegetables as she and others prepare vegetables to put in no-cost lunches for school children organized at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Abbey Drolema stamps brown paper bags for no-cost lunches for school children organized through Project Rooted at Convivium Urban Farmstead in Dubuque. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR


Whitney Sanger. PHOTO CREDIT: EILEEN MESLAR

When Whitney Sanger and Kevin Scharpf started Project Rooted in February, they had no idea that within 10 weeks, they would serve more than 35,000 free lunches to families in need due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We know that health stems from the inside,” Sanger said. “By feeding kids nutritious food, we not only nourish their bodies but their minds and futures, too. By educating kids and families about where their food comes from, we reconnect them with the source and open the doorway of opportunity to healthier choices.”

The mission of Project Rooted is to connect kids to real food from the ground up. However, serving free lunches wasn’t part of the original objective of the organization.

Then, the pandemic hit.

About 350 free lunches were served daily at the start. By the time the free lunches ended on June 2, more than 850 daily lunches were being served.

Sanger, a working mom of four, and Scharpf, chef and owner at Brazen Kitchen + Bar in Dubuque and a father of two, each have passions for community, kids and food.

“Through this passion and determination to make a difference in the lives of kids in this community, a movement began to change the way we look at food, one kid, one school and one community at a time,” Sanger said.

Project Rooted, a nonprofit organization that relies on more than 200 volunteers, has no paid staff. The volunteer board of directors is made up of 14 people from all walks of life, careers and backgrounds fueled by the passion of the community.

Sanger explained that the name of the organization was chosen because the meaning of “rooted” is to establish deeply and firmly.

“Not only does the concept relate to food, but it also speaks to the fact that we want to be an organization that is firmly planted in this community,” she said. “We want to show that rooted is not just a concept but a vision that has the potential to change the health and lives of future generations to come.”

Parents agreed.

“Project Rooted is community,” said Rachel Kieffer, an area mom. “They have provided a sense of comfort in an unpredictable time. They have given the overwhelmed mom the lunch her kids need but maybe forgot to figure out. The family that is struggling financially gets the support they need to feed their family. They have given their community extra tools to continue to educate their kids. They gave our children something to smile about in each lunch they served. Most of all, they have brought our community together in a time where everyone needs something, and they are always there to help with those needs.”

Kieffer added that she and her four sons, ages 1 through 8, have gained a better understanding of food.

“Healthier options that are still great tasting,” she said. “Although my kiddos tend to be on the picky side, they loved waking up every morning to see what Project Rooted had to offer for lunch that day.”

Project Rooted also has several educational projects, which include:

Garden Yoga + Snack time: Kids have the opportunity to get out and explore nature through yoga that teaches mindfulness, time in the garden to explore and the opportunity to create an out of box snack that is healthy and delicious. Twenty kids have been served in more than two classes.

Rooted Seeds: A free organic seed program offered to all community members, which helped create gardens across the community. More than 2,000 seed packets were distributed this spring.

Raised Garden Beds: Four raised garden beds have been placed throughout the community. The garden beds are used for educational purposes by various organizations.

Rooted Bucks: A program that offers $5 certificates for children to use at area farmers markets for fresh local produce, meats, cheeses, eggs, dairy, plants and more. Four thousand certificates have been distributed.

Sanger said the biggest challenges in getting the organization going were funding, time and manpower.

“We would love to see Project Rooted grow to a whole new level but in order to do that we need to create a full-time position that can help fulfill and reach our big dreams and goals,” she said. “We are also looking to expand our programs and that means finding a physical space where we educate, explore and have fun with the kids.

“What we have realized through our journey is that community partnerships are everything. We would not have been able to succeed without them. We truly live in an amazing community that continues to give back, support, uplift and care for the people in it. We are always looking for more community support whether that is through volunteering or financial contributions.”

Jill Carlson is a freelance writer from Madison, Wis.

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