Tamara Weber_alumni spotlight_square.jpg

Her Father's Garden Inspired a Bounty of Food Programs

Former BCG consultant Tamara Weber founded the nonprofit Pete's Garden. She sat down with BCG to discuss food waste, food insecurity, and how her time at BCG helped her look beyond preconceived notions.

Pete's Garden truly seems like a labor of love and care for the community. Tell us about your journey, and how Pete's Garden came to be.

The idea to start Pete’s Garden began with my daughter’s school project. She was learning about food waste and we watched the documentary "Wasted" with her eighth grade friends. I was shocked at the stats: 150 pounds of food waste per person per year, with over 75 pounds coming from food service operations. One-third of that is prepared food that has never even been served!

This issue really hit home with me because I grew up in a household where nothing was wasted, especially not food and especially not the vegetables my dad, Pete, loved to grow in his garden. Family dinners almost always included something he had grown. And since there was always more than we needed, Dad regularly sent me off with bags of fresh vegetables for our neighbors.

The more I learned about food waste in Kansas City, the more obvious the need, and the opportunity, to do something became. Although there were some efforts to recover and redirect perishable foods, tens of thousands of pounds were still being wasted. I felt that someone needed to step up to address the issue and after some thoughtful consideration and soul-searching, I decided that the “someone” was me. I believed that I could put my business development and management skills to work, helping to solve the food waste problem for my community. I decided to call the organization “Pete’s Garden” as tribute to my dad. Neither my mom or dad went to college but they worked hard their whole lives to ensure that my sisters and I could have a great education and do meaningful work. Pete’s Garden is about paying that forward and using the opportunities I had to help pull up others in my community.

Reduction of food waste and food insecurity is at the core of Pete's Garden. What other facets of sustainability will Pete's Garden address in the future?

There are many types of food waste and various ways to redirect that food. Surplus food can be redirected to feed humans, feed animals, or feed the earth as compost. As a startup, it was important to be deliberate about what aspects of food waste Pete’s Garden would address, otherwise I might quickly be overwhelmed trying to do too many things.

Based on the needs in the Kansas City community, I decided that Pete’s Garden would focus, at least initially, on redirecting surplus prepared food as free take-home dinners to families with children. Our motto is “Less food waste. More family meals.” Many of the families we serve are headed by single moms working low-wage jobs. They often don’t have time to prepare a meal, and dinner might be fast food or junk food. We work with caterers, restaurants, and food service operators to recover surplus prepared proteins and side dishes, items such as grilled chicken breast, pasta and meatballs, and roasted or steamed vegetables. Our volunteers portion and package the food into reusable take-home containers. We distribute primarily to Head Start programs. When parents pick up their kids after work, they can take home a ready-to-heat, restaurant-quality meal.

As we expand and add new programs, I intend to remain focused on redirecting surplus food in order to enable family mealtime. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have a home-cooked meal nearly every night. Family dinner was non-negotiable for my sisters and me. It was a time to talk about what had happened at school, projects we needed to do around the house, or whatever was happening in our family. I know a lot of kids don’t have regular family dinners these days, especially when mom or dad is a single working parent making minimum wage. Pete’s Garden make it a little easier for these families to share a meal together at home.

How do you see the impact of Pete's Garden growing in the years to come? Based on what you've seen and learned, what are you most excited about exploring for how Pete's Garden can increase its impact?

I started Pete’s Garden in January 2020, just before COVID forced restaurants and food service businesses to close or drastically curtail operations. During that time, we were able to provide meals for the families we serve by working with food wholesalers to donate ingredients, and with local restaurants to prepare meals. But it wasn’t food recovery.

With COVID restrictions lifted, we’ve been rapidly scaling up food recovery operations this year. We expect to recover and redirect over 55,000 pounds of prepared foods and we think there is an opportunity to double or triple that volume as more food businesses become aware of our program. I’m thrilled that we will be able to serve many more families as we grow.

The other program that I’m excited about is Kids Feeding Kids, an educational initiative we launched in December 2021 with funding from [Kansas City Chiefs quarterback] Patrick Mahomes and his 15 and the Mahomies Foundation. Many large school districts offer culinary arts programs for their high school students. The mission of Kids Feeding Kids is to support high school culinary educators with a standards-based food justice and culinary curriculum that focuses on increasing food access, reducing food insecurity, and raising awareness about the social and environmental impacts of food waste. We provide all the ingredients and supplies necessary for students to create up to 1,000 healthy meals for food-insecure families in their school districts. KFK builds on the overall mission of Pete’s Garden not only by providing free family meals but also by teaching the next generation of chefs—and home cooks—the importance of reducing food waste.

How was the career transition from a corporate organization to founding a non-profit? Any words of wisdom to share with others who are looking to follow a similar path?

Starting up a nonprofit, I had to address all the same issues as any startup. I began by recognizing a market need and building a business model to address it. I set strategic goals and developed an operating plan to achieve them. I identified operating partners to help my organization achieve our goals. To pilot test our food recovery program, I developed a strategic partnership with a major Kansas City Head Start program, Operation Breakthrough. Operation Breakthrough provides commercial kitchen space where Pete’s Garden volunteers work to repackage food. In exchange, their families get first dibs on any meals we distribute. As we have grown, we have been able to expand distribution to more Head Start programs, but we continue to operate out of Operation Breakthrough space and their COO is the president of the Pete’s Garden board.

Just as it is for any startup, raising funds is critical. I view my funders as investors in Pete’s Garden. I want them to have confidence in me and my team, as well as our plans to grow our operations and expand our impact. I try to build that confidence by clearly communicating our objectives, setting metrics to track our progress, and holding myself and my team accountable to our goals.

The biggest difference with nonprofits is that there is a spirit of collaboration instead of competition among organizations that operate in the same space. In Kansas City, there are many important organizations, big and small, that are dedicated to reducing food insecurity. Even though we each have our own niche, we sincerely try to support each other whenever we can because we are all working toward the same goals. And, in Kansas City at least, funders reward that. Local funders want to see nonprofits working together to build on each other’s capabilities in order to increase overall community impact.

As far as words of wisdom regarding nonprofit career path—I think the most important thing to remember if you are starting or running a nonprofit, is that it cannot be about you, it is about the community and people you serve. Media stories sometimes romanticize founders and their vision. But it is hard work and if you don’t have a sincere underlying commitment to those you serve, you will get frustrated or sidetracked and lose focus on your organizations’ goals.

Are there any lessons that you took with you from your time at BCG that continue to influence how you operate and lead your team and community today?

What impressed me, and stayed with me, from my time at BCG was the commitment to intellectual integrity. I think in our culture today, intellectual integrity clearly needs to be practiced more purposefully. In the setting I am working in now, intellectual integrity means doing the research to understand the facts on the ground, and then speaking and acting to address those facts. If the facts indicate that my current way of operating doesn’t make sense, then I need to admit that and work to change and improve, even if it means finding new or different funding sources. Intellectual integrity means being open to information that doesn’t fit my preconceived notions. I serve many families that face very different circumstances from the ones I grew up with. Practicing intellectual integrity helps me to avoid the arrogance of assuming that I know what’s best, and respect the experiences and insights others can bring. It allows me to find the best and most lasting solutions to the problems at hand.