When members of Arrowhead Conferences & Events visited the Richmond Region for their 2021 Annual Planner’s Retreat in September, they learned about meeting spaces, regional experiences – and a pop-up restaurant and event planning company turned community kitchen committed to reducing hunger.
Michael Sparks and business partner Kate Houck operate The Underground Kitchen (UGK), a roving experiential dining and event company based in the Richmond Region. The team focuses on giving chefs of color and women an opportunity to cook without boundaries, while offering unforgettable experiences, educational moments and amazing food to guests.
Arrowhead attendees heard directly from Sparks and Houck during a reception in Richmond to learn how the company pivoted from fine dining to fighting food insecurity last year.
Like many food-focused businesses, UGK paused operations in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. As the team canceled reservations, they took stock and saw an opportunity to help the community.
“We had a refrigerator full of food and a bunch of chefs who couldn’t work,” explained Sparks.
He called a friend at the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to inquire about spaces to cook. The next day, nine churches with commercial-grade kitchens raised their hands. Community First Project, the nonprofit arm of UGK, was born.
During 2020, UGK Community First served approximately 2,000 meals per week, delivering chef-prepared soups and food to residents navigating hunger and filling up pantries throughout the region.
But Sparks, Houck and the UGK Community First team didn’t stop at meals. Earlier this year the team harvested the first crops from a one-acre community garden they established at a 168-year-old Episcopal church in Hanover County, outside of Richmond.
The partnership grew after Immanuel Episcopal Church’s Reverend Chris Miller called looking for a place to donate unused food from a canceled fish fry event and learned that UGK Community First was looking for land to grow a garden. He knew the perfect spot. The fresh produce is bolstering the organization’s outreach programs to underserved communities around the region.
Today, UGK’s fine dining experiences have safely returned, but the work of UGK Community First continues as well. The nonprofit now cooks from the Annie Giles Community Resource Center in Downtown Richmond and is partnering with local nonprofits for food distribution to increase healthy food access.
Richmond Region Tourism proudly partnered with Arrowhead participants during their September visit to support UGK Community First’s important work. The groups donated $500 and gave 18 gardening kits on behalf of the 18 planners that attended the event to bolster the nonprofit’s outreach efforts to reduce food insecurity.
As millions of families and children faced the worst economic and health crisis in generations because of the pandemic, Richmond Region Tourism is thankful for the compassionate work of organizations like UGK Community First. The nonprofit proves that with creativity, collaboration and faith, people can make a big impact.