• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Agriculture commissioner visits future home of Spark Café

RYAN QUARLES, Kentucky’s commissioner of agriculture, talked to Tristan Ferrell, left, co-executive director of the Spark Community Café board, while visiting its future space in downtown Versailles May 16. Spark board members Lori Garkovich, Keegan Elvidge and Maria Bohanan are also pictured. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

JESSE FROST, who will serve as executive chef at Spark Community Café, left, talked about plans for the restaurant’s kitchen space while Tristan Ferrell looks on. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

Those behind an effort to open a pay-it-forward restaurant in downtown Versailles accompanied Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles when he visited the future home of Spark Community Café last week.

The restaurant, which will occupy a downtown space most-recently occupied by Pretty in Pink, will offer a hand-up to residents who face food insecurity. (The USDA defines food insecurity as a household condition where “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money or other resources at times during the year.”)

“Spark Café fits right in with the Kentucky Hunger Initiative where we are looking at a top-to-bottom approach that’s farmer-oriented towards addressing food insecurity,” said Quarles after his May 16 visit to Spark. “This model café kind of closes the circle because … sometimes we’ve been lacking on the actual preparation of the food and serving it to those in need.”

He described Spark Community Café and other similar initiatives as “wonderful examples of nontraditional models that are working towards reducing food insecurity in Kentucky.”

Tristan Ferrell, co-executive director of the board overseeing the nonprofit Spark Café, led the tour of its space. He said ambassadors of the restaurant will greet and then seat guests in a dining area.

Quarles was also shown where executive chef Jesse Frost and his kitchen staff will prepare “farm to table” meals for guests.

The locally-sourced food will come from his Rough Draft Farm in Anderson County and other local farms, Frost told Quarles. “Working from Woodford County out,” he said of the Spark Community Café menu, which will change based on what foods are “in season.”

A Spark Card will help ensure no one knows whether or not someone is paying for his or her meal, or will volunteer their time at the café to cover the cost of a meal.

“That’s awesome,” said Quarles. “That’s one big thing about food insecurity, there’s a stigma attached to it.” Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner later learned from Ferrell that the food insecurity rate in Woodford County is 12.4 percent; and that 34 percent of its high school students and 54 percent of its middle school students receive free and reduced lunches.

“What does that show you? …There are some hungry kids,” said Kyle Fannin, a former WCHS teacher, who now serves as co-executive director of the Spark board. “It’s the stigma (that results in fewer kids signing up for free and reduced meals). So we have got to solve that (stigma) problem – and we think we’ve got a way with the cards and getting them out into the community’s hands.”

Paying customers will be encouraged to use the Spark Cards when buying a meal. “It’s a way to ensure that we’re all alike when we go to pay because we’re paying with our cards,” said Lori Garkovich, who serves on the Spark board.

“And we will all be encouraged to volunteer (at Spark Café) so … you won’t know if they’re volunteering for their meal or they’re just volunteering,” said Fannin.

In addition to being a restaurant where anyone – regardless of ability to pay – can eat a nutritious meal, Ferrell said an open area will allow Spark Community Café to host special events such as live music and, added Garkovich, “poetry slams.”

When hot meals are not being served during regular hours and special events are not using the space, she said, “It’ll also be a place where youth in the community can gather and have some coffee and have … sandwiches and salads when the kitchen is closed.”

Following Quarles’ tour of the Spark Community Café space, Ferrell and members of the nonprofit’s board told him about what inspired Ferrell and four other seniors in a community activism class at Woodford County High School to lead a grassroots effort to open a pay-it-forward restaurant in downtown Versailles.

After Ferrell’s class operated a “pop-up” coffee shop during the Spark Festival two summers ago, teacher Andy Smith suggested they visit Grace Café in Danville. Ferrell, Keegan Elvidge, Rachael Kral, Regan Jobe and Kathryn Craig made that visit and three weeks later attended an Everybody Eats Summit in Philadelphia for pay-it-forward cafés from across the country – thanks to the financial assistance of Woodford Forward.

“We’ve had a lot of positive support from the community,” said Elvidge.

A sponsors’ banner hanging on the building where Spark Community Café will feed the hungry has the names of many local businesses supporting the nonprofit, “and (that number) has grown exponentially,” said Ferrell.

Cash donations have climbed to nearly $60,000, with another $30,000 to $40,000 of in-kind donations, including a 10-speaker sound system, WiFi installation, plates and dinnerware, according to Fannin.

“The fact that you have the community behind you and you haven’t even opened your doors yet – that’s a real key,” said Quarles. He commended the Versailles nonprofit for having a plan and board as well as a food source, and for recognizing its sponsors.

As work continued last week on the space where Spark Community Café will be located, Ferrell said a timetable for its opening now hinges on being able to buy a commercial kitchen hood (lowest estimate $38,000) and also obtaining a state permit to open a restaurant in the building.

“We’re a hood and a permit from this thing happening,” said Fannin, who now hopes Spark Community Café will open its doors in late-summer or early-fall.

While Quarles said he was not aware of low-cost options for a nonprofit to acquire a kitchen hood, the commissioner said refrigeration units are a more likely low-cost option to buy the two double-door refrigerators and freezer that Spark Café needs for its kitchen.

“Through the labyrinth of state government if we see any opportunities for grants … that run across our desks that we think you might remotely qualify for,” said Quarles, “we’ll let you know.”

Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner also invited backers of the nonprofit pay-it-forward restaurant to talk about their plans for addressing food insecurity in their community at a future Hunger Initiative meeting.

Visit sparkcommunitycafeky.org for more information about the nonprofit’s mission and sponsorship opportunities to help cover start-up costs.

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