August 14, 2023

Rooted non-profit provides food, farming, culture

Chris Williams, left.

One thing good that came out of the COVID pandemic is Lucille’s 1913, a nonprofit organization started by Chris Williams, the nationally celebrated chef/owner of Lucille’s restaurant.

The restaurant, which serves a modern take on classic Southern food, is located in the Museum District portion of the Greater Southeast Management District. But the nonprofit reaches well beyond the city center.

“Community first has always been our mantra, so the pandemic gave us the opportunity to amplify that in a new way,” Williams said. “My great-grandmother, Lucille B. Smith, founded her catering business with this goal in mind, so we just followed her playbook — invest in your community, and they’ll reciprocate. We started Lucille’s 1913 just trying to provide nourishment for the people that paved the way for us — our elders in these low-income communities.

“A lot of them rely on subsidized living, but most of these places didn’t have kitchens; then they had no access to their families because COVID built up this impenetrable wall. So, we started donating hot meals to these communities every day, and that grew into distributing over 1,000,000 meals to Houstonians in need. Since we’ve crossed that threshold, our Lucille’s 1913 mission has expanded.”

The 1913 part of the charitable organization’s name is the year Lucille B. Smith started a catering business to raise money for community service projects. The year was also the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

The nonprofit’s expansion now includes a farm program in Kendleton TX and the operation of The Historic Eldorado Ballroom in partnership with Project Row Houses in Houston.

“We’re not only trying to attack the problem but also get to the root by building a vertically integrated ecosystem that combats food insecurity and waste; creates training and employment opportunities in traditionally under-resourced neighborhoods; and empowers communities to discover a self-sustainable livelihood through culinary and cultural arts,” Williams said.

“In an effort to combat food insecurity and waste while creating sustainable community development, Lucille’s 1913 launched its farming initiative in 2022,” he explained. “The program’s hub is stationed in Kendleton, a once historic farming community turned food desert that was originally inhabited by emancipated slaves following the Civil War.

“Led by Horticultural Director Jeremy Peaches — a fourth-generation urban farmer — the farm’s function is to provide residents with produce access at wholesale prices; create employment opportunities for Kendleton residents; and power Lucille’s Hospitality Group’s vertically integrated ecosystem, providing freshly grown produce to its culinary and community concepts.”

The reimagined 1939 Eldorado Ballroom channels the historic concert and event venue’s legacy as a visual and spiritual symbol of the Third Ward community, which is also within the management district’s boundaries.

‘The ballroom’s return serves as a living extension of the nonprofit’s expanded mission to empower communities to discover a self-sustainable livelihood through cultural and culinary arts,” said Williams. “The venue’s future will honor its past, continuing to serve as a home for both established and emerging musicians to share their talents via live concerts and music events as well as providing a community-centered space for the neighborhood to host, gather, and celebrate.”

— by Marene Gustin