Project Rooted, a community-focused organization founded by two parents/fresh-food advocates, sums up its mission in this statement: “We strive to co-create a future where everyone has access to fresh, locally grown produce. By connecting our children, schools and families with local farmers, gardens and nutritious food, magic happens!”
But all too often, magic requires hard work. University of Dubuque/Aladdin Campus Dining Executive Chef Andy Mettert joined forces with Project Rooted “a couple of months prior to the Covid mess,” he shares, a bit of timing that ended up making his involvement even more impactful to the community.
“I was contacted by the co-founder and asked if I would be interested in working with a non-profit that would focus on connecting kids to real food,” Mettert says. After saying yes and accepting a position on the board, he got to work setting goals and planning.
Then Covid happened and Project Rooted turned into something different. “When all of the schools in our community closed, we realized there were many children who depended on the school lunch program for meals. We regrouped and pulled together volunteers and local businesses to fill this void.”
Using space at the university, Mettert and the team were able to assemble and transport meals to school-age kids around the community. During a few months, they served about 33,000 meals.
Now that college is back in-person and local kids are back at school, Mettert is continuing his work with Project Rooted while keeping things popping for campus food, looking more into world flavors and plant-based ideas.
His own culinary backstory—an East Coast Italian mama and a Midwestern farmer dad—informs the way he looks at food as a professional chef.
Big, happy family meals that lasted all day during trips to visit the Italian side of the family changed Mettert’s outlook forever. “Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents would sit around the table and eat while sharing stories and happenings about the families,” he recalls. “I took note that often, the main cook for these meals was my Grandfather Mario. I saw a whole different side of him when he was in the kitchen.”
Back home at a small Michigan farm, while meals were “the stereotypical meat, potatoes and vegetables,” Mettert gained the appreciation for where all of those elements actually come from. “We grew our own produces in a very large garden, kept chickens and a beef cow for meat,” he says. “What we nurtured on the farm in turn nurtured us throughout the year.”
Now with his own family and career, entering his 18th year at the University of Dubuque, Mettert is making food meaningful for the campus community. “Being able to interact with students who are far away from home and hearing about the food they miss…it’s a powerful reminder of how food fills more than our appetite.”