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These Friends Invested Their Life Savings To Feed Their Community

Garin Price

Jun 8, 2021

The Underground Kitchen Community First feeds thousands each week. Here's how Micheal Sparks and Kate Houck got it started and made it thrive.

In 2013, Micheal Sparks founded The Underground Kitchen, a Richmond, Virginia-based “exclusive inclusive” dinner party series that traveled to 40 U.S. cities. In 2018, his friend Kate Houck joined as partner and COO. But when the pandemic hit, Sparks and Houck put the for-profit business on pause and in April formed the nonprofit branch The Underground Kitchen Community First, which provides healthy soups and bread, school lunches and family meals to the community in need.

Since the pandemic began, hunger and food security have dramatically increased in the U.S. Currently, Sparks and Houck provide more than 3,000 meals a week. But with their new centralized kitchen, soon they will be able to do 5,000 to 10,000 meals per week. In 2021, they’ll expand their services to include an airstream that can serve educational and emergency purposes and distribute meals statewide — and continue with a downsized, COVID-safe version of The Underground Kitchen. In the latest story in our Voices in Food series, Houck and Sparks talked to Garin Pirnia about feeding the community with soup and love.

How did The Underground Kitchen and The Underground Kitchen Community First get started?

Sparks: My [partner] and I moved from New York [in 2009]. I was in fashion for many years — I was with Louis Vuitton. When we moved to Richmond, we didn’t know anybody here. We did like every good New Yorker does and started throwing dinner parties. That’s how The Underground Kitchen started. In the eight, nine, 10 years since it’s been developed, it’s always celebrated chefs of color and women who don’t get to play in the big restaurants.

When COVID hit, we had just finished a big corporate event in Boston, at a super-spreader [event], where we caught COVID. The whole world started falling apart. In two weeks we lost millions of dollars worth of contracts [one in Turks and Caicos] and had to put everything on hold, including a TV production deal.

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