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Sunday, 13 November 2016 13:45

With restaurant and food pantry, FireKeepers aims to address hunger in Battle Creek

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The owners of FireKeepers Casino Hotel plan to open a restaurant and food pantry at Fire Hub, the site of a former fire station in Battle Creek. The owners of FireKeepers Casino Hotel plan to open a restaurant and food pantry at Fire Hub, the site of a former fire station in Battle Creek. Courtesy Photo

BATTLE CREEK — Imagine preparing 100 meals and immediately tossing 40 of those into a garbage can.

That’s what happens annually in the United States where two-fifths of all prepared food gets thrown away, a trend that spurred FireKeepers Casino Hotel to develop a plan to decrease food waste in its community.

The casino, which is owned and operated by the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, in January will open a food pantry and restaurant on the site of a former fire station on the corner of Kendall Street and Dickman Road in Battle Creek. The renovated building, known as the Fire Hub, will house a restaurant in the front and a food pantry in the back, which will be available to qualifying low-income residents. The property also will include a large garden that will be used to grow local fruits and vegetables to be provided at no cost to schools in the downtown area.

“I was looking for a way to contribute back to the community and figure out what to do with our leftover food and create a revenue stream for the nonprofits we partner with,” said Michael McFarlen, vice president of food and beverage at FireKeepers Casino.

As a member of the board of the Battle Creek-based Food Bank of South Central Michigan Inc., McFarlen said he was aware of the thousands of community residents who go without or with very little on a daily basis. On the other hand, about 100 pounds of food prepared by McFarlen’s team at FireKeepers remains untouched and uneaten each day.

With buy-in from his boss and support from other departments, the tribe purchased the old fire station in April and McFarlen’s vision to help hungry residents and cut food waste became a brick-and-mortar reality.  

After working in the restaurant business for more than 20 years, McFarlen described the idea as a natural evolution to figure out a way to get rid of food while mitigating hunger.

The new venture is intentionally located in an older part of Battle Creek as a catalyst to spur other development and increase vitality, said Brian Decorah, the president and CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel. It serves as perhaps the first such initiative of its kind championed by a casino and will be operated as a nonprofit with the expectation that it will stand on its own as an entity separate from the casino.

Decorah said he is “not at liberty to share the financial numbers behind the project,” noting instead that “it will change that part of the city and people will become more involved in philanthropic efforts” to support that change.

“There is nothing like this that we know of anywhere else,” Decorah said. “This could be a potential industry changer.”

Food from the casino’s buffets will be repackaged into two- and four-pound containers and transported to the Fire Hub’s food pantry. Additionally, the casino’s leftover breads and rolls still in their packaging as well as sandwiches and any leftover food from the Fire Hub restaurant will be donated. The Food Bank of South Central Michigan, Meijer stores and local farmers will also provide items to stock pantry shelves, according to the tribe.

IMPROVING HEALTH

Prior to the passage in 1996 of the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, donations of unpackaged, leftover food were often discouraged nationwide. At the time, the federal law was enacted to encourage food donation to nonprofit organizations by minimizing liability. 

At FireKeepers, McFarlen said the casino’s restaurants have stringent food handling and sanitation practices that offset potential liability.

“People will be able to come in and select from an assortment of prepared, packaged, and raw foods,” McFarlen said of the pantry.

Food pantry clients will be screened for eligibility using guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Those who qualify will be given fobs that will enable pantry personnel to collect their information, such as how they want to be contacted to receive alerts, including those about special distributions.

Additionally, the food pantry is expected to offer resources such as GED preparation and cooking classes.

“A lot of people don’t know how to cook with certain foods or present it to children in a healthy manner,” McFarlen said. “In seven counties through the Food Bank, we set them up with a recipe and whatever the key ingredient would be that day. We make a recipe and do a food demonstration. This has built a lot of trust with us in the community.”

The classes, which began with about five participants per month, have increased to between 35 and 40 people.

“We want this pantry to have a best practices scenario,” McFarlen said.

While a team of volunteers in the pantry will work to address the immediate needs of low-income residents, the restaurant’s paid staff of 12 will be focused on generating funds for various community nonprofits. An estimated 80 percent of all restaurant profits and 50 cents from each restaurant bill will be distributed in the nonprofit sector, with the remaining 20 percent of profits reinvested into the property.

“We were all trying to come up with a creative way to create a revenue stream to alleviate the need for nonprofits to go to the same funding sources each year,” McFarlen said. “Nonprofits face the same challenge every year of having X amount of money to operate and X amount of demand. This takes the uncertainty out of funding for nonprofits.”

FOCUSING ON HUNGER

Decorah said community residents will get top-quality food in exchange for their support of the restaurant and its mission. The restaurant’s offerings will include artisan bread baked on the premises, neapolitan thin-crust pizza baked in an Italian-made pizza oven, and desserts.

“The restaurant will not have a ‘skinny’ menu,” said Jim Wise, vice president of marketing at Firekeepers. “There will be a full array of food to choose from. The food element will be something the community will grasp onto.”

The restaurant will be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday under the direction of Head Chef Jennifer Ozolins. Decorah said the hours could change depending on demand.  

He said his organization is proud to be a part of the Battle Creek community and wants to improve the quality of life for all residents through efforts such as the Fire Hub.

McFarlen said he hopes others emulate his idea.

“The Battle Creek community is so ready for this,” he said. “I think we can end hunger here.” 

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