Pop-up dining nonprofit puts food access on its plate

EAT Foundation members at an event atCrossroads Art Center in Richmond. (Courtesy EAT Foundation)

EAT Foundation members at an event atCrossroads Art Center in Richmond. (Courtesy EAT Foundation)

Led by a resident of grocery-starved Manchester, a new Richmond-based nonprofit is taking its fight to end so-called “food deserts” to the streets.

EAT Foundation, led by city resident Zach McElgunn, is serving up pop-up dining experiences across the Mid-Atlantic to raise money and awareness of food deserts in Richmond and elsewhere.

A UVA grad who has worked in restaurants and in pop-ups, McElgunn formed EAT as a way to highlight the region’s dining scene while helping to address areas where vulnerable populations have limited access to fresh, healthy food.

“When you look at this area, for some, especially in the city, access to grocery stores that have fresh produce and vegetables is difficult,” McElgunn said. “Yes, we have a lot of grocery stores in the area, but there are limited options in the city.

“I live in a neighborhood where we have no grocery store, but I have the means to travel to a grocery store.… Others that live in the area are not so lucky.”

A community style dining concept, EAT works with regional chefs and venues to craft a specific menu for diners that follow a particular theme for the evening. In December, the group held its first event at Wilton House in the West End, where patrons enjoyed a five-course meal prepared by Brandon Bundy, executive chef at Julep’s, that highlighted meals from the American Revolution era.

“We pair everything, from the food and beverages, to where we will be hosting the dinner,” McElgunn said. “We want to craft a memorable dining experience, so we work with the chefs on creating a multi-course menu.”

The group has since held two other events in Richmond. Tickets cost about $85 per person, with $10 – tax-deductible – allocated to a fund to support the foundation’s community initiatives. The group also takes donations.

Since its inception last November, McElgunn said EAT has raised about $3,000 for initiatives aimed at addressing food deserts, such as bringing farmers’ markets directly into those areas and organizing ride-sharing programs to transport affected residents to grocery stores that may be difficult to reach via mass transit.

As its first community project, McElgunn said EAT is partnering with Richmond Friends of the Homeless to provide to-go packs of fresh fruits and vegetables for people the group assists.

McElgunn said food education is also at the heart of EAT’s community advocacy.

“My ultimate goal is to work with a chef to develop a quarterly dinner of about 100 people, where they can demonstrate how to cook fresh dishes for themselves and their families,” he said.

McElgunn said he would like to work with other nonprofits in other cities to establish similar initiatives. He and a group of four volunteers plan to bring EAT’s pop-up style of dining to a number of cities across the state, including Charlottesville, Roanoke, Williamsburg and Fredericksburg. Other cities eyed outside Virginia include Raleigh, North Carolina, and Columbia, South Carolina.

“For now, we’re focusing on Richmond,” he said. “But as we raise more money and make more connections in the places where we’re hosting these event, we want to expand our reach there.”

McElgunn said people can go to the group’s website, eatogether.org, and subscribe to a mailing list to be notified of events and ticket on-sales.

McElgunn said EAT is preparing for its next event in Roanoke on Monday. Jeff Farmer, a chef at Roanoke’s Fortunato restaurant, is preparing a seven-course dinner pairing traditional Deep South dishes with cuisines of countries involved in the Trump administration’s international travel ban.

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