Lately, Albion College alumnus Patrick Lopez ‘15 has been serving up some mean economic entrees to the local community. Moving from California to Idaho to Michigan, the current farmers market director now finds himself in charge of the city’s latest revitalization project, the Albion Community Food Center (or, The Hub).
Teaming up with the United States Department of Agriculture, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Battle Creek Foundation, the nonprofit secured a refurbished former store space on East Erie Street.
The ACFC’s vast windows and high ceiling invite everyone to see what it has in store. Press up against the glass and a massive industrial community kitchen pops into view. Giant stainless steel mixers and ovens are tucked along its walls. Tables are lined in procession down the middle. It’s the whole enchilada.
Paying a small, per-hour fee, anyone can brew their culinary dreams to existence and by walking over to an adjacent bodega, sell their creations directly for profit with nearly all resources and support provided.
“The sky’s kind of the limit here in terms of what we can produce here and provide,” said Lopez.
With a Political Science major and Ford Concentration as his utensils, he is whipping up instructions to meet the ACFC’s following three goals, each intrinsically key to the other two’s success: build economic capacity, remove barriers for those wanting to enter the food-related businesses and increase food access to those who need it.
While local residents producing their own food and profits would economically benefit Albion on its own, Lopez has other methods too. By collecting supply from farmers in the area, for example, options are diversified and costs are lowered, translating in turn to cheaper costs for the community. The produce could then be purchased by individuals, providing local equity to a growing local economy.
An exchange program would also be established. Software would be created for farmers to advertise their supply to institutional buyers, such as Cascarelli’s or Bon Appetit. The farmers would drop their produce at The Hub, pay a small fee for space and rake in the earnings.
An opportunity is presented then, of course, for future chefs who are often blocked from success by start-up costs and lack of support. Lopez, hoping to start his own food business, understands these problems.
“I had to sit down and say, ‘What’s going to be good for me? What am I uncomfortable with? What’s going to be difficult?’” he said.
This is why the process of becoming and remaining a part of The Hub is straightforward and supportive. The first step is simply to come and talk — Lopez needs to get a feel for the product, the person behind it and his or her projections. If the individual is deemed a good fit, a state health inspector will be put in contact, providing guidance through the licensing process. From there, a contract is worked out, detailing hours of use, an understanding of policies and a promise to clean up after oneself. Then, the kitchen is open for use.
For the first day, the $20-an-hour rental fee — cheap compared to others, especially when regards to space — will be reduced, allowing those not often used to large scale operations to become acclimated to baking their 15 cakes in three hours.
For those wanting to expand business, an advisory council will eventually be formed.
“We will want experienced restaurant or business owners to step in and say, ‘Here’s what you have to expect on your road to opening your own place,”’ said Lopez.
However, it cannot be forgotten that The Hub hopes to bring an oasis of USDA-certified food to the nutritional desert Albion is. With little access and low income, Albion’s residents are among the most parched in Michigan.
Community connections are key for food desert remediation. This upcoming summer, a FURSCA intern will be conducting research to discover Albion’s food access. Who isn’t getting food? Or if there is access, why are individuals not taking advantage of it?
While the research pours in, The Hub wants to reach out to certain parts of the community needing the most access by providing mobile hubs or partnering with churches or Section Eight housing. Produce can be sent each week, free for qualifying residents. Programs such as culinary classes that “demystify” cooking and healthy eating might be provided as well, not only to areas in need but to all of Albion.
In conjunction with his farmer’s market, Lopez also wishes to expand food assistance programs such as SNAP, WIC: Project FRESH and Double-Up Food bucks to The Food Hub’s market and programs. The market itself would also be stocked in groceries for easy downtown access. The drive to Family Fare would not be needed so often. Ultimately, each of these food desert remediation projects are hoped to instill the value of local, healthy food.
Lopez foresees convincing people to buy from the market will be the toughest sell.
“Not everyone’s going to wake up the next day and go, ‘Oh God, it’s time to eat fresh and healthy things all the time,’” he said. “But you know what? If a couple of people change and it works and we get some feedback that says, ‘This is how we’re going to improve it,’ then we’ll change the programming around and go from there.”
The Food Hub is projected to be functional by late February with a soft opening following suit. A grand opening, however, is set for late March. The open houses throughout the day will cook up to a ticketed, fundraising gala. The entire opening will feature an individual cooking and serving hors d’oeuvres for tasting and viewers seeing the kitchen in action.
While The Albion Community Food Center may be a bit of a hors d’oeuvres itself right now, if all ingredients and measurements are met, the main course is projected to be five stars.
Photo by Beau Brockett, Jr.