A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Kentucky by Heart: Woodford County’s Spark Community Cafe on mission to provide food for all

Spark Community Cafe provides farm-to-table meals to all patrons, regardless of ability to pay. (Photo courtesy Spark Cafe website)

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Down on the corner of Main and Green Streets, in downtown Versailles, former high school teacher Kyle Fannin sat talking with me in the Spark Community Café. He characterized the purpose of the attractive gathering place. “This is a community café, and the idea is that we are all eating under the same roof together — those who can pay it forward and those who can’t.”

Kyle Fannin (Photo from Facebook)

It was, and is, a grand and noble idea, spawned by the teacher, his students, and a circle of other individuals dedicated to the concept of confronting food insecurity all started a few years back from Kyle’s class at Woodford County High School called Community Activism.

The formal mission, taken from Spark’s website: “To provide farm-to-table meals to all our guests, regardless of their ability to pay,” is worthy yet not always easy to implement. Launched in March 2019, Spark Café, Kyle noted that “we struggled with that the first year. It was confusing to the public about who could come in and who couldn’t. Those who wanted to come to a nice restaurant thought it was a soup kitchen, and those who wanted a meal thought it was too nice. It was a balancing act… not an easy thing to communicate.”

The first year, up until about the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spark saw only about five percent of the people served at the restaurant were considered as food insecure. The goal was to make it 20 percent. When the pandemic hit in 2020, it appeared that the challenges might become insurmountable to keep the project going, as many other businesses and outreaches across the country discovered.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Spark closed in March and reopened in June to do carryout orders. Not long after, governmental restrictions led to closing again, and the decision was made to stay closed until all on the staff, mostly volunteers, received the COVID vaccination. Kyle called 2020 “a rough year, but we made it up (financially) with $80,000 in donations and $65,000 in PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), along with another $25,000 to $35,000 from the Woodford County Community Fund, the Bluegrass Community Foundation.”

And people in need received help, even with the café being closed. At the next-door Versailles Presbyterian Church, Spark fed children involved in a weekly program called “Esperanza,” an outreach to Hispanic elementary school children that soon grew into helping others in Woodford County. Up to 300 meals each week were delivered by Spark. In all during the pandemic, “two-thirds of our meals went out to the food insecure,” Kyle said.

A sizeable number of Hispanic individuals work on local horse farms, and the efforts involving Spark have encouraged more giving from those connected to the farms, Kyle said. “There was a period of a few weeks where three different horse farms came in and wrote me checks for $5,000 to $10,000 apiece. This (Spark Café) was becoming their place, (and) they paid to run ads in Thoroughbred magazines to try to shake money loose for us.”

Kyle told stories of how homeless individuals were assisted with food, then began to help in the restaurant’s daily cleanup. He mentioned people needing food, but who walked into Spark Café and immediately left when seeing the splendor of the building—feeling as if they didn’t deserve such luxury. He also related the heart-warming account of a homeless man who received food but later walked into the restaurant after having found a job. He ate, paid for his meal, and added “paying it forward” money while expressing appreciation for now having a job and able to be generous.

Today, all vaccinated up and back in business, Spark Café is serving customers—those able to pay and those not. A significant amount of normalcy has returned. Not only is the building itself open and serving, but the outreach is also expanding the extent of food catering for outside groups in the community—mainly for fund-raising reasons. As a side note, difficulty in finding enough volunteers has necessitated paying some workers with the catering operation.

Mural in side Spark Cafe (Photo courtesy Spark Cafe website)

Kyle looks to continue being a part of Spark Café in the future, but with his desire to spend more time as a grandfather and possibly to do some writing in his academic background, history, he’s looking to transition someone into his job as executive director and make it a paid position (Kyle is not paid). “I need somebody younger than me with restaurant and non-profit experience to come in here and have this great job,” he said.

The challenges for Spark to meet its mission will always be there, but the future seems promising. “We try to keep the farmers around here in business. It’s hard. From May to September, most food comes from 25 to 30 miles from here. We pay a lot for (their) produce,” said Kyle.

More of the food insecure population is being fed. With great individuals such as former UK professor Lori Garkovich and noted farm-to-table restaurateur Ouita Michel, who was involved in the early stages, plus a host of other movers and shakers who support the outreach, this experiment with altruistic intentions looks to continue to be successful.

For more information and/or to find out how you might support Spark Community Café, visit www.sparkcommunitycafeky.org.

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