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How The Pandemic Changed The Underground Kitchen

Colleen Curren

Oct 20, 2022

Before the pandemic, The Underground Kitchen was known for its glamorous, sold-out, $150-per-plate dinners from top chefs in secret locations.

Before the pandemic, The Underground Kitchen was known for its glamorous, sold-out, $150-per-plate dinners from top chefs in secret locations.

But when the pandemic closed down bars and restaurants, UGK was shuttered, too.

“For weeks, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We had refrigerators full of food and folks who couldn’t work. We decided we were going to make meals for anyone in Richmond,” founder Micheal Sparks said. “Whatever your socio or economic background was, you could have a free meal. We wanted to spread a little love in the city.”

During its first week, UGK delivered 175 meals to the public. They began working with agencies around the city to deliver meals to the food-insecure and poverty-stricken areas in the city, especially in the East End.

Now, UGK has served more than 225,000 meals to those in need and launched its nonprofit arm, The Underground Kitchen Community First Meals Program.

“This is a community facing high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease. We wanted to introduce healthy, chef-prepared, organic, free-range food that is tasty and that can make people feel better,” Sparks said.

In 2021, more than 34 million people, including 9 million children, faced food insecurity, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Families in low-income urban areas often live in “food deserts” with limited access to a grocery store, which makes it harder to access healthy food. Now, with inflation, grocery stories prices have soared 13.5% in August from the year before, the highest annual increase in over 40 years, according to government data, making it even harder for low-income families to access healthy food.

Food insecurity can lead to the health risks Sparks mentioned: Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Black communities experience hunger, poverty and unemployment at much higher rates than white communities, according to Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief organization. In 2021, nearly 20% of Black individuals lived in a food-insecure household. Black people are almost three times as likely to face hunger as white people.

“There’s no one doing fresh, prepared, organic food for this community. That’s why we stepped in,” Sparks said.


On a recent morning at a tiny church called Faith Covenant Christian Fellowship in Richmond’s East End near Mosby Court, UGK’s Community First Meals Program dropped off more than 100 fresh soups.

“This right here, this one is my favorite,” Serena Pittman said, pointing to the collard green soup. It’s made with fresh collard greens, chard, strawberry spinach, rice and roasted pork.

Pittman lives in the neighborhood and stops by the church with her nephew to pick up meals throughout the week. Pastor Mary Gleason works hard to receive food from Food Lion and BJ’s that she uses to help feed the community. But the fresh, chef-prepared dishes from UGK are a neighborhood favorite.

“I’d rather have greens than meat,” Pittman said. “And my nephew eats it up.”

Besides the collard green favorite, Jermaine Carson dropped off cabbage soup, brimming with fresh cabbage and tomatoes, and beef stew, with seasonal root vegetables and herbs.

Carson is the kitchen manager in UGK’s Community First Meals Program. After spending years in Richmond restaurants and catering, he said cooking for UGK’s meals program “is a chance to do something positive. It’s good to see the food I’m cooking is touching people for the better. It’s not fast food. It exposes people to a healthy lifestyle.”

His niche is healthier soul food. “Some people think that with Southern food, all the flavor comes from butter and fat. But I like to show how you can incorporate healthy flavors, and people won’t miss the fat or the butter,” Carson said.

UGK partners with Richmond-based Shalom Farms to obtain fresh vegetables. Since 2020, the farm has donated roughly 10,000 pounds of fresh vegetables like peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, garlic, zucchini and squash to UGK.

“We believe that everybody deserves access to fresh, healthy food wherever they are,” Anna Ibrahim, executive director of the farm, said. “We’ve very mission aligned with UGK in how we view the scope of the problem in the communities we serve. Fresh food shouldn’t be out of reach for anybody.”

“Micheal calls it ‘food with dignity,’” Kate Houck, Sparks’ business partner in UGK, said. “It’s from our hearts to theirs. We want them to feel cared for. That’s very important.”


“We’ve always promoted chefs of color, women, minorities and members of the LGBTQ community in the industry,” Sparks said. “What we’re doing is kind of new in the industry. We’re promoting diversity through food and beverage, which is really special.”

Chef Hamidullah Noori, owner of The Mantu, a modern Afghan restaurant in Carytown, credits UGK for helping launch his career.

After serving as executive chef at the five-star Kabul Serena Hotel, Noori, along with his family, fled Afghanistan in 2015 when conditions became too dangerous to stay.

He was introduced to Sparks and Houck, who tapped him as a headlining chef for countless dining events throughout Virginia and beyond.

“It was the first time I was preparing a modern style of cuisine from Afghanistan, which became The Mantu,” Noori said. “We traveled everywhere and cooked from North Carolina to D.C.”

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