SOUTH BEND — Cultivate Culinary, a nonprofit organization that turns donated food — often left over from catered events — into individually packaged meals that are sent home in backpacks on weekends with area school kids, has expanded into a new facility that has allowed it to increase its impact.
The organization’s new 12,000-square-foot facility at 1403 Prairie Ave., allows Cultivate to produce 3,600 meals each week for students at nine area schools. And it has the capacity to do more if donations increase.
Chef and co-founder Randy Ziolkowski, known as “Randy Z,” said the new facility allows for more volunteers to work at one time and has more space for food storage, which allows for quicker preparation of more meals.
The organization, that is funded by donations and grants, was founded about two years ago. Co-founders Jim Conklin and Ziolkowski said their mission is not just to fill stomachs, but also to repurpose fresh food that would otherwise be thrown out.
Using donated food left over from events such as tailgates, team dinners and luncheons from various groups, universities and businesses, Cultivate prepares and packages single-serving meals each consisting of a protein, starch and vegetable. The meals are packed into insulated backpacks (six meals each) and are donated each week to schools with food assistance programs, ensuring that schoolchildren who qualify for free or discounted meals at school have food over the weekend.
Now, with its new, expanded space, volunteers can take leftover food — a load of pork butts, for example — and chop it up, mix it with rice and make pork fried rice for an entrée in meal boxes.
“There are 47,000 kids in three counties of Marshall, Elkhart and St. Joseph counties that are on reduced lunch and have no food on the weekends,” Ziolkowski said, “So if you think about 47,000 kids, that’s about the size of Mishawaka — and that’s just the kids in these three counties.”
The new facility also allows Cultivate to store substantially more food than its former site did. Ziolkowski said the organization can now “rescue” and store half a million pounds of food.
In the past, he said, there have been missed opportunities for taking in donations, including when Cultivate once had to reject an entire truckload of eggs.
“We just didn’t have the room,” he said. “Now we can capitalize on these big truckloads.”
While leftover food may have a negative connotation to some, Ziolkowski said it’s handled and stored carefully to ensure it stays fresh and safe. The food is made by some of the best chefs in the community and is top quality without added preservatives or high sodium content, he said, adding that he likes to include foods children might not otherwise experience. Lobster has even made its way into meals.
“We have our standards and we want it to be the best possible food getting to these kids.” He said, “What if it’s their only meal?”
Making an impact
Cultivate’s work has garnered national attention. Celebrity cook Rachel Ray invited Ziolkowski on her show in November and encouraged donations to the the program on national television. And representatives from two states have reached out to Cultivate asking about potential franchising or assistance in replicating the Cultivate model, Conklin and Ziolkowski said.
Ziolkowski stressed how important it is to not just “plug the hole” of need, but to give people nutritious, satiating food that will enable them to live healthy lives. While shelf-stable items of canned soup or vegetables may “fill bellies”, the high sodium content and preservatives of such items could lead to more serious long-term problems like heart disease and obesity, he said.
“The impact goes far beyond simply feeding bellies,” Ziolkowski said, “Cultivate attacks food waste, it educates people on how to eat well and take care of themselves. It prepares them for jobs.”
In addition to satisfying hunger, the backpack program has a tremendous impact on the families of the children it feeds, he said.
“It takes a lot of pressure off them,” Ziolkowski said, referring to the children’s parents. “They’re not worried about their kid eating because they know ‘thank God,’ you know, ‘Cultivate is going to send home a backpack.’ That’s one less thing to worry about.”
Volunteers and the partnerships with local organizations are the real backbone of Cultivate, he said.
The University of Notre Dame is one of those partners. Spokeswoman Jessica Brookshire said the university donates food from a variety of events and team dinners on campus every week.
The partnership is a great way to ensure that unused food is not wasted, especially after large catered events that over-anticipate the amount of food necessary, Brookshire said. It also supports the university’s mission of promoting education by ensuring kids are well-fed and ready to learn, she said, adding that the backpack program improves a child’s behavior and attendance at school. Researchers from the Shaw Center for Children and Family at Notre Dame are currently studying the correlation between food assistance over the weekend and student behavior, attendance and test scores at local schools.
“Kids that are hungry are not going to perform as well as a student that has a full tummy,” Brookeshire said.
Cultivate is focused on continuous growth and hopes to deliver 6,000 meals a week by August, Ziolkowski said. South Bend program That’ll require increased food, funding and volunteers — things that could be acquired through partnerships with local grocery stores. Kroger is already aware of Cultivate, having donated $10,000 to the backpack program in the past.
“America wastes 40% of their food supply, and 20% of it goes to landfill,” Ziolkowski said, “We’re not rescuing from any large grocery store chains — what if we picked up one of those?”
Going forward, “We need two things,” he said, “food and funding.”