Bacon’s Rebellion Challenge: Donate Your COVID Recovery Check to Charity

Michael Sparks, creator of the UGK+ Soup: Community First Project, delivers a soup meal to Pearl and Gil Wick. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

So, I got my government COVID-19 check in the mail. I like getting money from the federal government, especially when it’s a tax refund. But I did nothing to deserve this particular sum. I have not been an economic victim of the epidemic (not yet, anyway) and I feel totally undeserving, especially when so many other people are suffering. Accordingly, I have decided to donate the sum to a local philanthropy to help Virginians in need. And I urge other Bacon’s Rebellion readers to do the same.

The philanthropy I have selected is Underground Kitchen’s Community First program. There are good reasons to support Underground Kitchen, but many other charities are doing wonderful work as well. I hope readers will take the time to share stories of their favorite nonprofit and explain why they make worthy recipients of readers’ federal-helicopter checks.

Underground Kitchen started as a Richmond-based enterprise providing high-end corporate events centered on good food and good wine, often in off-beat locations such as pastures or alleyways. After hitting it off in the Richmond and Northern Virginia markets, the business went national and was preparing to go international when the COVID-19 epidemic hit and effectively shut it down. Founders Michael Sparks and Kate Houck did a fast pivot.

Accustomed to working off-site with mobile kitchens, they had the know-how to provide food to the Richmond community. Central Virginia has a strong food bank, Feed More, and an excellent network of food pantries. But the system was not set up for disaster relief; the infrastructure for feeding the poor was overwhelmed. People were being laid off in the tens of thousands; doctors, nurses and first responders were working to exhaustion; and conventional food sources were being disrupted. The needs are seemingly limitless.

Over the past three months Underground Kitchen has risen to the occasion. It has partnered with local Episcopal churches to utilize their kitchens, has partnered with local food providers, has hired chefs and paid them a daily stipend, and has assembled a team of 40 volunteers to package and deliver the meals. The Community First program’s specialty is soup — thick, hearty, nutritious soup — which, along with bread and tea, creates a full meal. Chefs work creatively with whatever comes in — chickens one day, ham another. Depending on the food sourcing opportunities, they might serve Moroccan chicken soup, tomato vegetable or beef chili.

“It’s home made. It’s as organic as we can make it,” Houck tells Bacon’s Rebellion.

Community First is not a program exclusively for the poor. It serves people in need, whatever their background. The program sends meals to hospital workers, to ambulance first responders, to out-of-town residents of the Ronald McDonald House whose relatives are undergoing medical treatment, to the elderly who don’t feel safe leaving their homes, and to others who, for whatever reason, live in seclusion. But the nonprofit doesn’t overlook the poor. It is close to reaching an arrangement with the Richmond Public School Foundation to deliver meals to the families of school children at particular risk of going hungry.

At present, Community First serves well over 1,500 people per week, and Houck expects that number to swell as more money comes in and partnerships fall into place. She projects that it will cost $10,000 per week to cook, package and deliver 2,000 meals — effectively $5 per meal. Houck makes this promise to donors: “One hundred percent of this money goes into paying chefs and buying supplies.” None of it goes to administrative overhead.

She does not see Community First as competing with Feed More. “This is immediate,” she says. “Our meals get consumed immediately.”

You can read more about the program in this Richmond Times-Dispatch profile.

Full disclosure: I learned about Community First from my sister and brother-in-law who are actively involved in the program through St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.

If you are so inclined, you can write a check to:

UGK Community First
18 Charnwood Road
Richmond, Va., 23229.