The Kansas City nonprofit’s innovative approach is to reduce food waste, fight food insecurity and restore family mealtime.
Pet Garden, founded in 2019 by Tamara Weber, partners with suppliers, restaurants and food service organizations to save unused and discarded prepared foods.
Weber and a team of volunteers package that food into simple, ready-to-eat meals. Those healthy meals are delivered to social service organizations that distribute them to needy families three days a week.
“This is a perfect meal to eat,” Weber said. “It is often prepared in bulk by caterers or food service operations that serve many people at once. If there was a surplus, in Kansas City there was no easy and safe way to channel that surplus to the people who needed food.
Weber deliberately chose to focus on processed foods — like meats, proteins, vegetables and other side dishes — for two reasons.
First, because bakeries offer bread, baked goods, desserts, and produce. Second, her end game is to get families to enjoy mealtimes together.
“Food recovery is just an end to me, and the ultimate goal is to really enable family mealtimes,” Weber said. “I grew up in a family where we had dinner every day. Now that I think about it, it’s almost too small.
“My idea is that Pete’s Garden makes it easy and convenient for other families, especially single moms and working parents, to take food home and have family mealtimes,” she added.
By her own admission, Weber never considered starting a nonprofit. But after watching Anthony Bourdain’s documentary, “Wasted! The Story of Food Waste” as part of a school project with her son, she felt compelled to take action.
“That documentary was really eye-opening for me, because I didn’t know what a big issue it was environmentally, and I didn’t realize how much food was wasted,” Weber said.
American restaurants waste more than $25 billion in food each year, and only 20 percent donate unprofitable food, according to data on the Pet Garden website.
In Kansas City alone, restaurants can serve up to 1 million meals, and 1 in 6 children are food insecure.
“I thought, ‘Well, this problem seems to be just a matter of people with excess food getting it to people who need it,'” Weber said.
At first, Weber researched organizations where she and her daughter could volunteer, but quickly realized the gap in the area was bigger than she thought.
I’m surprised someone hasn’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  I stood up believing that I was ‘someone’.”
Not long after, Weber left her job at Hallmark and began a strategic plan for how to reduce food waste in Kansas City.
She was pitching her idea to Operation Breakthrough in August, and it was so popular that Pet’s Garden immediately partnered with the organization to start distributing food to families in November.
“It was very clear that this was going to work,” Weber said. “Food was available, it wasn’t that hard to repackage it, and working with an organization like Operation Breakthrough, the families were coming to pick up their kids right there. It was just a matter of preparing the food when they came.”
Runs in the family
In many ways, Weber’s desire to save food waste and promote family mealtime can be traced back to her own upbringing outside of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
“I grew up in a family where food was very important, and it wasn’t something we wasted, and we used it as a way to bring our family together,” Weber said.
Her father, Pete Sluck, loved growing produce in his backyard garden for the family to eat and share with neighbors, Weber said, which is why she chose the name Pete’s Garden.
“Our family’s meals consisted of vegetables from my father’s garden every day, so it seemed natural to me to name the organization Pet Garden to pay tribute to what he did,” Weber said.
Her father was a factory worker who did not finish high school, so the family did not have much money, she said. Now that she has the ability to help others, Weber feels it’s a way to “pay it forward.”
“I now have the capacity and the ability to do something with the education, skills and resources I have,” she said.
In the year In 2022, Pete’s Garden distributed 65,000 meals to families in Kansas City, and Weber said he could “easily” go up to 125,000 meals by 2023.
There is no more time to waste.
Part of that projected growth is the result of Pete’s Garden moving into a larger kitchen at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral — the firm previously shared space at Operation Breakthrough.
The new location should allow Pete’s Garden to add more food donors, Weber said.
Affiliate organizations have pledged to donate at least 40 pounds of food per week out of a health department-inspected kitchen, though Weber said she’d be happy to partner with smaller organizations to divert their excess food.
“I don’t want any good prepared food to go to waste in Kansas City,” she said.
Weber could envision a future program where she and volunteers cook meals at home with surplus ingredients, but for now she said she wants to focus on the “core” of the mission.
As Pete’s Garden grows, so does the need for volunteers, said Weber, who prepares meals Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“I think everybody has something they can do to improve things,” Weber said. “Instead of sitting around complaining about how this doesn’t work or doesn’t work, do something. If I can inspire people to think 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 Starland News, a KC Media Group affiliate.