Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2014

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Diners can eat out and help out

Some of the Strip's top restaurants will be discounting prices on meals next week -- and donating part of the proceeds in a fundraising campaign to support a novel initiative to help feed the valley's needy.

The chefs are being pressed into service to raise money for the year-old Three Square, a nonprofit organization whose name alludes to meals per day. The organization, created by a consortium of business and civic leaders, is intent on developing a massive kitchen and food pantry to help scores of charitable organizations in Southern Nevada distribute fresh-cooked meals to the hungry.

Thanks to a $2 million seed grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Three Square was created to leverage the buying clout of the gaming industry to acquire and distribute food to the hungry.

“If hotels and casinos are buying, say, a million pounds of chicken, then hopefully they can get the food vendor to donate or give at greatly reduced prices 1,000 pounds of chicken to Three Square,” said Three Square CEO Julie Murray, who spent five years as the national campaign director for the Agassi Foundation before resigning to help the fledgling food agency.

Three Square wants to build a kitchen facility in North Las Vegas to prepare meals but, even with a $1 million contribution from the state to help pay for it, is short of money. For help, the organization is sponsoring a gourmet food fest called Restaurant Week.

David McEntire, vice president of food and beverage at MGM Grand and a member of the Three Square board of directors, arranged for 51 of the Strip's top restaurants to discount the cost of meals during the coming week -- and to donate part of the sales to Three Square.

Key to Three Square's success is in persuading food vendors that do business on the Strip to donate food.

“Leveraging the (industry's) buying clout to get wholesome, nutritious food at a very reduced price on a consistent basis is the goal, and then in our facility we will produce nutritious meals for delivery to nonprofit agencies,” Murray said.

Grocery stores, including Smith's, have expressed an interest in donating food that is at the expiration limit but that can still be safely used if promptly prepared.

Chefs and UNLV nutritionists will consult on the menus.

Two sites in North Las Vegas are being considered for the 200,000-square-foot kitchen complex.

Three Square will collect food, manage the pantry and train chefsand other food preparers, Murray said.

Since March, Three Square has been cooking meals at Nevada Partners' Culinary Training Academy at 710 W. Lake Mead Blvd. About 700 meals are being provided each week to five agencies: the Las Vegas Rescue Mission, the Salvation Army, the Center for Individual Living (which houses homeless teens), West Care (a drug and alcohol recovery facility for young people) and Silver Sky (an assisted living facility for low-income seniors).

The organization has used the experience to test meal-delivery plans and design the new facility, she said.

Murray says the program may serve as a model.

“We plan to make this a national model facility and show other cities what can be done when you have a public/private collaboration to end a social challenge.”

For its own model, Three Square turned to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“We are using some of the best practices at that facility to guide us,” Murray said.

The plan to fight hunger started more than three years ago when Eric Hilton, youngest son of Conrad Hilton, was in Las Vegas and heard a news report about a local nonprofit agency being forced to close for lack of money.

Hilton asked his foundation to conduct a study of the hunger issue here.

The two-year study found that the meals being served each day by 150 nonprofit agencies were meeting only half the needs, Murray said.

The Hilton foundation then funded Three Square.

Carolynn Towbin, chairwoman of the operational board of directors, said feeding the hungry is essential in helping at-risk children.

“Our future is in the hands of children,” she said. “No matter what else we do for at-risk children, we must provide nutritious meals. It's the basis of where we can go with those kids. If we're not feeding body and soul, then it limits what we can achieve.”

Jerry Fink can be reached at 259-4058 or at [email protected]

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