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Cultivate Culinary Upping Output to Keep Pace with Food Needs


by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, February 26, 2021

Cultivate Food Rescue is scaling up.

A little more than a year ago, the South Bend-based nonprofit food rescue organization moved from a 3,000-square-foot facility along Niles Avenue to a 12,000-square-foot building at 1403 Prairie Ave.

After several months spent remodeling the former warehouse, Cultivate's new base of operations was ready for occupancy in January 2020.

As it turned out, the timing couldn't have been better. The pandemic arrived in March, disrupting our routines and way of life. The local food system was no exception. As live events were cancelled and restaurants and schools were closed, there was an influx of food to be "rescued." Food insecurity increased, and Cultivate stepped up to provide greater support for those in need.

During the height of the pandemic, Cultivate upped its production from 3,600 meals per week to 16,000 meals per week. Working with local partners and donors, staff and volunteers distributed those meals to students who were learning virtually, and to food pantries that serve a growing number of patrons.

According to Jim Conklin, Cultivate's co-founder, the need for the organization's services is growing. He attributes this to a rise in unemployment, which forced many people to put off car repairs and other expenses. Considering recent hikes in food and gas prices, he said it may be two years or more before many families affected by the pandemic-induced recession are able to get back on their feet again.

That's where Cultivate, a nonprofit agency that functions as food broker, is able to make a difference. It works with several big names in the local food business to rescue their excess inventory, thereby reducing waste. Cultivate's staff and team of volunteers then repurpose that food and pack it into ready-to-serve, microwavable meals.

Conklin adds that the meals are nutritious and excellent in both taste and quality. Some of the food packed into meals are sourced from the following: Culver Duck, Navarre Hospitality Group, Olive Garden, Four Winds Casino, Carrabba's, Red Lobster, Bonefish Grill, South Bend Century Center, Rise'n Roll Bakery, Longhorn Steak House, Stanz Food Service, Starbucks, Whole Foods Market, the University of Notre Dame and more. Other major donors include the Milford Food Bank, Food Bank of Northern Indiana, and Hoosiers Feeding the Hungry.

Working with partners and donors, the meals are then distributed to food pantries in a three-county area: St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall.

"The pandemic has created a new opportunity for us at Cultivate to serve the smaller food pantries in St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties," said Todd Zeltwanger, director of fund development. "We're finding excess food that's out there in the system—bread, food, milk, eggs—things that these smaller pantries run low on often times."

Cultivate is also very involved with local schools. Every Friday, hundreds of meals are loaded into backpacks and sent home with students. On Mondays, the students return the backpacks so they can be replenished with more food. In some cases, the meals are the only nutrition those young people receive on the weekends. However, when the pandemic forced schools to close, Cultivate worked with local educational officials to make deliveries.

As of May 2020, 600 students from multiple school systems participated in the backpack program. This year, Cultivate is hoping to nearly double the number of students receiving take-home meals.

Another change brought on by the pandemic is the type of food being rescued. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, Zeltwanger said Cultivate often received prepared food from various catered events, including University of Notre Dame football games. But when those banquets and catered meals ceased, Cultivate found itself with fewer banquet-type foods, like barbecued chicken, hot dogs and various desserts.

Instead, the nonprofit group began rescuing more unprepared food, like raw vegetables.

"So, we're now cooking the food instead of using the prepared, unserved food," Zeltwanger said. "So, our model has kind of shifted a bit."

To make its business model work, Cultivate relies on grants and donations to pay for equipment and fund the daily operations. The nonprofit currently has a wish list that includes LED lighting, Genie man lift, vertical fork lift, new electrical panel in the garage, ceiling fans, and a new office and conference room. For $35 per month, anyone can become a sponsor program.

Cultivate recently merged with Meat Hunger, a program founded by two St. Joseph County youths, Emily and Noah Zimmer, who worked to raise money so they could purchase livestock from 4-H'ers at their county fair. The livestock were then donated to groups like Cultivate, which work to fight hunger.

Now under the same umbrella, Cultivate is hoping to continue the Zimmers' vision by partnering with county fair organizations in St. Joseph, Elkhart and Marshall counties.

But Zeltwanger also stressed that anyone can donate meat animals to the nonprofit agency. Last spring, for example, when processing plants shut down due to rising COVID-19 cases, he received calls from several farmers offering to donate finished swine animals. Those who donate cattle, hogs or other meat animals are eligible for a tax deduction due to Cultivate's nonprofit status.

Unfortunately, Cultivate couldn't accept all of the offers due to constraints at local meat plants.

"One farmer, in particular, said, 'I can give you 400 pigs if you can take them all,'" Zeltwanger recalled. "But we could only get 70 of them through the system before things opened up and he could get them back through his normal channels."

Another key to Cultivate's success is having a steady stream of volunteers. Zeltwanger said the organization has a close relationship with various partnering agencies that donate human resources to fight hunger and reduce food waste, but he said the staff is always looking for more people to help.

During the pandemic, volunteer participation has increased, Zeltwanger said, as churches, civic groups and others have seen the need and responded. When the city of South Bend closed all county parks during the pandemic, the city shifted those employees to Cultivate's meal-packing operation.

A future goal is to have a teaching kitchen—a place for hosting field trips (after group gathering restrictions ease) and teaching parents and students how to cook their own meals. Zeltwanger said Cultivate wants to provide basic education regarding the ABC's of food preparation and how to stretch your food dollar.

Zeltwanger said the newly remodeled facility was once a warehouse used for storing giant rolls of news print. Cultivate purchased the building and began remodeling it, adding freezers and coolers, two kitchens, food prep equipment and everything needed to pack hundreds of meals in a short amount of time.

Along the way, staff have purchased other equipment at discount—like a mixer for mashed potatoes and such, that was purchased from Westville High School. The kitchen area is also equipped with tilt skillets.

As Conklin and Zeltwanger noted, the timing of the new facility couldn't have been any better, as the nonprofit food rescue organization needed every inch of space during the pandemic to handle the increased volume of food coming through its doors.

The take-away point from Cultivate's leaders is that they are looking for new partners to help accomplish the mission of fighting hunger and reducing food waste. Zeltwanger said 4-H'ers and farmers are important to that mission since they are involved in food production and education.

Zeltwanger said the nonprofit needs more young people with the spirit and passion of Noah and Emily Zimmer. He wants to build on their efforts and involve other 4-H'ers in the strategy for engaging county fairs.

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