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Two years ago, Richmond's Underground Kitchen hosted $150-a-head dinners; now it has a community garden and is feeding people in need
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cultivating a cause

Two years ago, Richmond's Underground Kitchen hosted $150-a-head dinners; now it has a community garden and is feeding people in need

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Two years ago, if you had asked Underground Kitchen founder Micheal Sparks and his business partner, Kate Houck, where UGK would be now, they likely wouldn’t have envisioned standing on an acre of freshly plowed earth belonging to a 168-year-old Episcopal church in the easternmost corner of Hanover County, daydreaming about fruit trees and herb gardens and, just maybe, a hothouse for veggies.

They likely would’ve answered back then with some exotic locale — an island in the Caribbean, perhaps — someplace where they could wow guests with their signature ticketed dining experiences that were poised to go international.

Yet, there the two stood on a sunny morning last month, squinting into the sun as teen volunteers and John Mattingly, UGK’s community garden director, planted okra, hot pepper, tomato and squash seedlings in raised beds. Immanuel Episcopal Church, in the Old Church area of Mechanicsville, had given the beds and the land to UGK.

The plantings officially launched the UGK Community First Garden of Grace at Immanuel Episcopal, a long name that started with a short phone call in late November that had nothing to do with a garden.

But that’s typical of how things begin for UGK — a call about one thing leads to another, doors open, opportunities present themselves, communities and individuals connect.

Change seems the only thing that stays the same for UGK’s Sparks and Houck.

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Two years ago, UGK hosted exclusive $150-per-plate events with chef-driven dining, curated wine and beer pairings, and lush locations.

One year ago, those fancy plates and wine glasses collected dust on shelves while UGK delivered free homemade soups and bread through their nonprofit arm, UGK Community First, which was started after COVID-19 shuttered UGK.

Now, nearly halfway through 2021, Sparks and Houck stood on this church farmland and surveyed its potential, thinking out loud what they’d do with additional acreage if given the opportunity.

The church garden is a tangible asset and symbolic gesture. Its bounty will be used in UGK meals that feed hungry seniors and others with food insecurities throughout the region. Prepping those meals will be among the skills rolled into a workforce development program that’s in the works for people with disabilities.

That, and it’ll foster seemingly unlikely relationships.

“There’s a huge divide between urban and rural [communities] these days in our country,” said Immanuel’s the Rev. Chris Miller. He said he called Houck in November to offer her a shipment of fish that he couldn’t use. The pandemic stopped the church’s annual Lenten activities, which feature a fish fry, and rather than waste the food, Miller wanted to know if UGK could use it. He’d heard of them from their partnership with Episcopal churches around the area.

That conversation somehow turned to UGK needing land for a garden. Within 48 hours, he said, he and Houck had an arrangement.

“They had the people and the vision and not the land; we had the land and not the people,” Miller said, and from that, “relationships are going to grow that wouldn’t have otherwise.”

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As Sparks and Houck oversaw the garden efforts in the ’burbs, Janice Jeffries got to work downtown.

With a firm, steady grip on a chef’s knife, Jeffries sliced off the tops and bottoms of onions and carefully peeled off the flaky, outer layers. She cut the onions into quarters and placed them into a bin to her right. Using her hands, she felt around on her large cutting board for the lacy scraps, gathered them by the handful and threw them in a large bin to her left before rummaging around in that same bin for the uncut onions.

As she worked inside UGK’s kitchen, in the Annie Giles Center on Oliver Way, Jeffries, a Danville native, recalled her mama’s cooking; the hearty chicken and dumplings, the blackberry cobbler, the rich chocolate cakes.

When she was a child and other kids were outside playing, Jeffries would stay inside and watch her mother work in the kitchen. She was completely comfortable there, and went on to work in restaurants and then kitchens in nursing homes and hospitals and local schools.

Out of the blue, Jeffries started to go blind in her late 40s.

Sight in her right eye went first, she said, and rather quickly. That was in 2012. Then the left eye. Her doctors weren’t sure what was happening. She was suddenly unable to work and, against her family’s wishes, Jeffries moved to Richmond to get help with her blindness. She was living by herself, which meant she was still cooking for herself.

After a few years, she wanted to work again and through a senior program, she was referred to UGK in late 2020 and became its first workforce development employee.

Jeffries now spends hours each week at the Giles kitchen, prepping vegetables for the UGK soups and meals that feed hundreds of people every week. Her work area in the kitchen contains Braille stickers to help her navigate her way. She’s thankful to be working again and feels right at home in the UGK kitchen. Staff have become like her family, she said.

Jeffries is the first in a UGK workforce development program that would include training modules in basic kitchen and bakery assistance, garden and greenhouse maintenance, hospitality and service, floral design and assistance, and social media content creation. Sparks said he hopes to eventually include partnerships with local schools.

They’re also working with Richmond’s SOAR365, which provides services and resources for people with disabilities and their families.

“They do a lot from garden to kitchen,” said SOAR365’s director of workforce development, Chris Martin, “and we’re always looking for avenues to be able to assess our people with jobs, or provide them with employment.”

He’s working with Houck to create opportunities throughout that “garden to kitchen” process, from working at the church garden and within the UGK kitchen, to potentially helping find jobs for people with disabilities once they’re ready within Richmond’s restaurant scene.

“There are so many synergies” between UGK and its nonprofit, and SOAR365, Houck said. “They have so many people who want to train, who want to find work ... who are perfectly capable, [and] we have all different kinds of occupations.”

“It’s like a match made in heaven,” she said.

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All of these efforts go back to UGK and UGK Community First’s mission of fighting food insecurity and hunger.

UGK’s weekly food distribution channels — supported by a small army of volunteers who’ve been helping for more than a year to deliver meals — continue to serve places like Sacred Heart Center, The Doorways, Reinhart Guest House at St. Mary’s Hospital, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church food distribution program and more, as well as getting food to workers at St. Mary’s Hospital and individual families.

But UGK’s latest efforts now include working with residents in Whitcomb Court and Mosby Court, where they set up central locations near the communities so residents can access UGK meals.

Providing food is just the start. Sparks and Houck want to change the conversations about food in these areas, places where access to healthy food is scarce and food insecurity exists. They want to start initiatives that offer classes on nutrition and cooking.

They’re working with members of those communities, people like Tanya Jackson, whose 92-year-old grandmother was among the first residents of Whitcomb Court in the late 1950s. Jackson, who runs a nonprofit called Kidz at Work, has helped UGK make inroads in her grandmother’s community.

Jackson said that while many people often gravitate toward quick, unhealthy fast food — maybe because it’s all they’ve ever known or because they don’t have access to healthy foods or can’t afford fresh ingredients — she knows there are people in these communities who want to learn how to cook and make better food choices for themselves and their families.

“It’s a struggle,” Jackson said earlier this year. Younger people in particular, “would rather eat McDonald’s [or] anything you can throw in the microwave.”

She said that with her nieces and nephews, “if they sit down and eat a hot meal, it’s because we made them sit down.”

However, “some of the young people want to cook,” she said, and UGK classes that are free and accessible would be beneficial.

Sparks and Houck said reaching those neighborhoods starts with listening to those residents about their needs and learning where the gaps exist when it comes to food and even employment, and then leveraging UGK’s vast network of food and chef resources to provide help in a variety of ways.

Houck said they want to be intentional about working with the community, not just trying to fix the problems. They’re starting with programs that offer food assistance, but want to create programs that educate people about nutrition, budget-friendly healthy recipes and the benefits of eating as families.

“What we’re trying to do is get in and really talk with them about what their need is,” Houck said. “We can go on all day about soups and beautiful dinners and casseroles, but we have no idea if that’s really fitting the need — maybe they need breakfast or lunches more than they need dinners — we don’t know.”

She said she learned a long time ago that assumptions often lead nowhere.

“ln your head, you think you know [and] understand the disparities, but you know nothing,” she said. “Once you admit that, that’s when you can go and talk to people.”

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